WASHINGTON: Positing the future of intelligence — even for one year — poses unique challenges. First, there’s so much those of on the outside don’t know. Then there’s the simple truth that our enemies and competitors drive so much of intelligence. Since we can’t know with certainty what will happen, it’s difficult to predict what the intelligence community will react to and thus spend money on.
With all those caveats, our predictions for 2014 are:
- The double digit budget cuts that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper outlined in late 2011 are unlikely to stick. With Iran, Syria, North Korea, Iraq and, of course, China playing such large and uncertain roles in the world, policymakers will be loathe to give up access to information and analysis.
- Smaller and hosted payloads, still the subject of vibrant discussion in the national security space world after almost a decade, are unlikely to gain much traction. Physics are at work here. Small may be beautiful, but it just can’t do what big can.
- Some compromise will be reached regarding the furor generated by that man living in Russia, Edward Snowden. Apparently driven by ignorance as to what “meta-data” actually is and worried about the prospect of the federal government intruding into their constituent’s private affairs — a venerable and sometimes all too valid American fear — members of Congress will pass some bills appearing to restrict the NSA. These will be hailed as intelligence reforms.
- However, those intelligence bills are likely to be much like the legerdemain that pushed Adm. John Poindexter’s infamous data mining projects out of the unclassified Defense Department budget into the black budget. The Orwellian name “Total Information Awareness” went away but the capabilities were preserved, and no one could complain because almost no one knew about them. In fact, much of the success of the Iraqi and Afghan surges have been dependent on exactly the sort of work Poindexter pushed: the fusing of biometrics with signals intelligence (SIGINT), human intelligence (HUMINT), and strategic and tactical analysis.
I canvassed several experts with access to classified information or long experience in the intelligence world about the next year to ground our predictions in as much reality as possible. One of them, a former senior intelligence official who worked in the military and the White House, argued that some of the $29 billion in defense cuts being debated on the Hill may very well end up in the black budget: “I think the double-digit budget cuts will also not last very long, because the international environment seems uncertain in several different places, which means you need to cover more than one place at a time, and because reduced funds for defense usually are good grounds for increasing funds for intel.”
A former top senior intelligence official, Joseph DeTrani, agreed. He believes “all these problems” — Syria, North Korea, Iran, cyber attacks, the international trade in and increased availability of Weapons of Mass Destruction such as chemical and biological weapons, and, of course, the persistent threat from terrorists — “obviate the likelihood of cuts” to the budget. DeTrani, former senior advisor to the DNI and now president of the quietly influential Intelligence and National Security Alliance, notes the threat to national security of the deficit, but he casts it not as an existential threat but as a problem that the country must ensure “does not continue to grow.” Translation: intelligence may be expensive and require increasingly scarce dollars, but being caught unawares costs even more.
However, I believe the cuts to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) — which comprised much of Clapper’s planned reductions — will persist. Simply, NGA’s workload will diminish somewhat as the war in Afghanistan wanes (for us and NATO) and the commercial contracts will be smaller because of the acquisition of GeoEye by DigitalGlobe.
On the hosted payload front, there is a great deal of discussion and hope about this as a means of reducing launch costs and making it more difficult for an enemy to attack any given set of sensors, but our source believes, “the whole business of national security government work is so very different in requirements, budgets, schedules, culture from the business of business (communications satellites)” that any significant increase in hosted payloads is unlikely in the near term.