Intelligence Oversight

Global Change and Megatrends: Implications for Intelligence and Its Oversight

By Christopher Kojm
Thursday, May 12, 2016, 7:53 AM

Zachary Goldman and Samuel Rascoff recently released Global Intelligence Oversight: Governing Security in the Twenty-First Century. The edited volume “is a comparative investigation of intelligence oversight systems in democratic countries, which focuses on some of the new dynamics shaping and constraining intelligence services, and the range of purposes a holistic approach to oversight should serve.” This week, Lawfare is hosting a mini-forum where contributing authors discuss their chapters.


Change throughout the international system is profound and accelerating. While the Intelligence Community (IC) seeks to inform policymakers about change, the IC also needs to look inward and reflect on the implications of change for its own mission and for the oversight of its activities.

Powerful megatrends are reshaping the international system. They include the diffusion of power. The moorings of the post–World War II order have long been slipping, and emerging economies have little interest in taking on responsibility for international order. The diffusion of power is also taking place within states: Around the world, the growth of a middle class drives popular interest in more accountable government and greater political participation. As a result, governments are under stress because the governed are demanding so much more of them.

The single greatest factor enhancing the power of these richer, healthier, and smarter middle-class individuals is information technology (IT). IT changes the power balance between individuals and governments, and causes the upheaval of business models. Rapid and disruptive change will come about because of the Internet of Things, synthetic biology, and robotics.

Changing demographics are a powerful megatrend. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s population growth between now and 2030 will be in the developing world. Europe and Japan are rapidly aging. So is China, which is younger than the United States today but by 2030 will be older. India will surpass China by 2025 as the world’s most populous country. Urbanization and migration are powerful trends that will surely continue. By 2030, 1.4 billion more will move to cities; hundreds of millions will cross borders in search of opportunity.

Impact on the IC

Taken together, these megatrends point to a decrease in state capacity and an increase in the number of new actors and new threats. The ability of governments to protect their citizenry against the multitude of threat vectors will continue to erode. There will be fewer resources arrayed against a bigger collection of potential adversaries, of which nonstate actors will represent the fastest growing component.

Every issue of concern—terrorism, proliferation, trafficking—will have a growing urban and transnational component. The IC’s international partnerships will become crucial, because the United States cannot possibly develop the expertise in language, dialects, and cultural norms to track every shantytown on the planet.

Closer ties with domestic law enforcement and the private sector are also necessary. Because every threat vector at some point transits cyberspace, partnerships with the creators, purveyors, and system operators of IT will need to grow. The importance of cybersecurity cannot be overemphasized. Cyber will become as important to the IC as overhead systems became half a century ago.

The IC’s mission requires close ties with the nation’s leading IT firms—and of course those relations are troubled right now. It will take time and lots of dialogue to mend them. The basis for reconciliation is a deeper understanding of mutual interest: IT firms cannot prosper in a world without security—the kind only government can provide—and the U.S. government in turn must accept a more law- and rule-based process for access to data and expertise that changes perceptions of corporate complicity in surveillance.

Outreach is also essential for the IC to understand change and provide meaningful analysis. The IC needs full-time engagement in what it refers to as the “open source” world and consideration of how the collection, dissemination, analysis, and use of open source data should be governed. In order to carry out proper outreach, the IC must overhaul how it conducts security clearances and carries out the counterintelligence (CI) mission. The answer is not long background investigations, but quick financial and criminal background checks followed by continuous monitoring of employee activities.

The IC also needs to knit expertise together internally through intelligence integration. Creativity and innovation result from individuals of diverse backgrounds and perspectives interacting in ways that press them, stress them, and ultimately test the validity of their ideas. The model is cross-domain collaboration, and it will be critical to the success of the intelligence enterprise going forward.

Central to intelligence integration is a single IT platform through which all agencies can collaborate. The IC is on track to adopt a single IT backbone; all data will move to the cloud. From the perspective of oversight, this common architecture will put a premium on clear rules about data use and dissemination.

Like every successful commercial enterprise, the IC needs to incorporate big data analytics into its work. Big data sets can help the IC track change and give warning about discontinuity. The IC will also need to embrace crowdsourcing, a technique whose forecasting value has been amply demonstrated.

Congressional oversight of the IC remains critical. More Committee members and staff with high-tech backgrounds are necessary. So is a separate appropriations subcommittee for Intelligence in both the House and Senate, reporting out a single appropriations bill for the National Intelligence Program. Effective oversight of a Department of Homeland Security requires a single authorizing Committee and single appropriations subcommittee in both the House and Senate.

Perhaps the most important reform relates to the IC’s good name and reputation. Over the long term, no institution of government can carry out its mission without the support of the American people. The IC should pursue efforts to increase transparency and build more safeguards against the abuse of surveillance programs. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) needs to enhance its profile and influence, and come to be viewed over time as an authoritative voice on privacy and civil liberty matters.

Finally, IC leaders must engage in a forthright and sustained dialogue with the American public. They have an obligation to explain to the American people what they do and why they do it. For the IC’s leaders, the process is time-consuming and often frustrating. Yet the renewal and success of the IC depend upon it.