No U.S. presidential race has ever turned on the appeal of the candidate’s promises on intelligence policy. Indeed, many recent party platforms have either ignored altogether or addressed with vague generalities how an aspiring commander in chief would manage the world’s most sophisticated information gathering enterprise. Such inattention was not always the norm.
In 1976, a pious Georgia farmer promised to keep our security agencies out of domestic politics, and also to respect the choices made by voters in foreign elections. Four years later, a California film actor committed to rebuild and unleash U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union, which at the time appeared ominously ascendant. While few ballots were likely impacted, as candidates both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan clearly signaled their approach to secret intelligence activities.
Recent declarations proved less reliable. For example, the Democratic Party’s 2008 platform promised to “depoliticize” intelligence by appointing a Director of National Intelligence for a fixed term. Of course, President Obama ended up firing his DNI after only 16 months for reported political missteps.
The upcoming contest will, and probably should, focus on the electorate’s domestic concerns and the candidates’ sharply contrasting temperaments. But while there is no current equivalent to the Soviet nuclear threat, the fact remains that American citizens, interests, and ideals are at serious risk from multiple international menaces. The next president’s success in dealing with external threats will depend critically on deft management of our sprawling yet little-understood intelligence community. Effective political leadership of U.S. intelligence requires clear policies, well-ordered priorities, adequate resources, and effective tools.
Here are four “intelligence planks” for a sound national security platform:
- 1. As a matter of policy, U.S. intelligence professionals will use all lawful means to gather the information required to disrupt threats and to inform our foreign policies.
An order signed by President Reagan in 1981, and reaffirmed by presidents of both parties in the intervening decades, directs that “all reasonable and lawful means must be used to ensure that the United States will receive the best intelligence possible.” Simple enough, but our IC does not currently adhere to this principle. In response to pressure from vocal foreign leaders and others, President Obama directed our intelligence agencies in 2014 to refrain from collecting, holding, and evaluating certain information gathered through lawful electronic surveillance, and granted foreign nationals privacy protections similar to those U.S. citizens enjoy under the Constitution. Of note, not a single foreign government (ally or adversary) has reciprocated by offering to respect the privacy rights of Americans. The methods our IC uses to gather intelligence and the use we make of information about non-Americans should not be subject to self-imposed restrictions.
- 2. Reverse a half-decade decline in intelligence spending to prevent the erosion of essential capabilities developed after the 9/11 attacks, exempt the IC from the disruptive impact of automatic spending cuts, and transfer war-related intelligence costs to the base budget.
Intelligence spending climbed dramatically in the wake of al Qaida’s successful attacks. The IC’s budget roughly doubled from 2001 levels. These funds—together with new laws, policies, and leadership focus—made possible the new programs and personnel that prevented further catastrophic attacks as well as significant strides toward rebuilding general capabilities that atrophied after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The IC’s budget peaked in 2010 but has declined by approximately 17% in the last five years. Uncertainty about automatic spending controls (“sequestration”) wreaks havoc on budget planning that in turn negatively impacts operations. The DNI, who is a career intelligence professional, has warned of the insidious effects of declining, and unpredictable, intelligence budgets in an exceptionally complex threat environment. Like the rest of government, the IC must justify its spending, but we risk our future capacity to warn and provide U.S. leaders a decisive information advantage by scrimping on intelligence investments.
- 3. Maintain essential tools to collect the foreign intelligence that is required to disrupt terrorist plots, including by renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Intercepting enemy communications ranks among the most basic and timeless intelligence tools. Despite its wide-scale publication, officials confirm that our ability to monitor the online communications of foreigners outside the U.S. continues remains invaluable for our counterterrorism effort. Section 702 of FISA—a provision that requires private firms to surrender this data in response to a government request—will expire in 2017. A consensus of national security professionals supports renewal of this provision, but critics question the adequacy of the court-supervised measures to protect the communications of Americans that are incidentally collected by the program. Congress authorized this valuable intelligence tool twice previously, and the next president should insist that it be renewed again without modification.
- 4. Complete implementation of post-9/11 intelligence reforms by strengthening the IC’s central leadership to ensure information is being shared and that these agencies effectively collaborate on a single set of strategic priorities.
Congress passed landmark legislation in 2004 that was informed by the recommendations of the blue-ribbon 9/11 Commission. Core reforms included the creation of the DNI post to promote a more unified IC along with a National Counterterrorism Center to improve information sharing and whole-of-government responses to terror threats. The IC’s counterterrorism work has improved. However, legislative compromises, bureaucratic resistance, and uneven White House support have combined to limit the authority of the IC’s new leader. The ability of future DNIs to make and enforce strategic resource allocations and exercise necessary leadership in crowded fields like cyber, social media, and homeland security will require the next president to endorse the new structures and unambiguously empower the IC’s leader.
The major party platforms will inevitably promise economic prosperity, unrivaled military strength, and decisive global influence. None of these goals is practically achievable without effective intelligence. Both parties should, therefore, signal how their nominee would use America’s substantial intelligence capabilities to protect the nation and inform prudent foreign policies.