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What Does the Future of National Intelligence Hold?

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BOOK REVIEW: The Future of National Intelligence

By Shay Hershkovitz / Rowman & Littlefield

Reviewed by Glenn S. Gerstell

The Reviewer — Cipher Brief Expert Glenn S. Gerstell is a Principal with the Cyber Initiatives Group and Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.  He served as General Counsel of the National Security Agency and Central Security Service from 2015 to 2020 and writes and speaks about the intersection of technology and national security and privacy.

REVIEW —  Woven throughout the recently released National Intelligence Strategy 2023 is a deep concern that the U.S. Intelligence Community is at risk of not keeping pace with rapid advances in technology – advances that are being exploited by our adversaries and profoundly endanger our national security.

In the realm of national security, this is, of course, a familiar concern. Over the past century, America has been warned that it was inadequately prepared for world wars, on the verge of losing the space race with the launch of Sputnik, woefully ill-equipped after the 9/11 attacks to thwart international terrorism, and more recently, moving too sluggishly to deal with technological innovation affecting many aspects of our national wellbeing. Yet if history is any guide, we’ve mostly been able to catch up and address impending threats.

Is it different this time? The technological advances relevant to the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) are now so different in scale, speed and scope that they threaten to overwhelm, if not render partly irrelevant, our foreign intelligence system. That’s the premise of The Future of National Intelligence, by Dr. Shay Hershkovitz, a respected commentator and academic who has focused on innovation and intelligence.

Although a year old, the book deserves current attention as the IC seeks to implement the new National Intelligence Strategy, learn lessons from the Ukraine war, and prepare itself for technologic changes and geopolitical threats posed mostly by a rising China.

Hershkovitz is hardly the first to state the concerns so starkly. As the pace and breadth of the digital revolution became manifest over the past several years, thinktanks, scholars and public officials have all sounded the alarm about the looming deficiencies in our IC. In a thorough and useful chapter surveying the recent commentary about these challenges, Hershkovitz cites similar warnings contained in Amy Zegart’s Spies, Lies and Algorithms, William Lahneman’s Keeping U.S. Intelligence Effective and this reviewer’s essay, We Cannot Afford to Lose the Digital Revolution. What sets Hershkovitz’ book apart, is a deeper look at the specific technologies that are increasingly relevant to the IC.

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In his view, the “eight key technologies already transforming national intelligence [are] the Internet of Things, 5G technology, big data, cloud computing and storage, artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum computing, and crowdsourcing.” Hershkovitz explains how each technology presents opportunities and challenges for intelligence collection and how the sheer importance of each technology makes it essential that intelligence analysts understand its implications. He concludes “that current and emerging digital technologies are so pervasive and so comprehensive that intelligence organizations must transform themselves to stay relevant to policymakers.”

As if to prove the very point about the speed of innovation, Hershkovitz’s descriptions in some cases already are in need of update. That’s not a criticism; that’s a risk inherent in any explanation of rapidly evolving technology.

For example, Hershkovitz accurately notes that spy agencies “now have competition in collecting information,” and as a result “are losing an essential attribute: absolute supremacy in the technologies of discovering secrets and the prestige associated with that.”

A vivid illustration of the point as relevant to the intelligence community arose only after the book was written, when Russia attacked Ukraine – generating an amazing and compelling demonstration of the role of crowdsourcing and open-source information. Real-time accounts on Twitter of missile attacks on Kiev, the indispensable role of private satellite images, and crowdsourcing collection of information about Russian troops activities were all on display since just before the start of the invasion.

Similarly, while forward-looking, Hershkovitz’s description of the potential for AI couldn’t possibly capture the intensity and scale of the current discussions about the dangers of generative AI following the explosive release of ChatGPT in late 2022.

In a few areas, the book’s predictions about technologies are open to debate. For example, Hershkovitz asserts that quantum computing will “dramatically improve cyber-attack capabilities. But experience teaches us that in the cat-and-mouse intelligence-technology game, it is easier to develop more advanced defensive capabilities than to develop improved offensive capabilities.” First, it’s not so clear that it is in fact easier to develop defensive capabilities; a good argument can be made to the contrary, as it is often the case that a new defense is implemented only in response to an unanticipated offensive attack of novel technique. Second, as it relates to the potential of quantum computing to break strong encryption, it will take decades for governments and businesses to fully implement quantum-resistant systems. And finally, and more broadly, the implications for intelligence organizations (let alone society in general) of the ability of one nation to crack strong encryption are so enormous that they warrant a deeper discussion.

But these omissions do not detract from the overall quality of the book. It is well-researched and richly documented (with 18 pages of notes). Its scope and depth make it an essential text for any modern academic course on national security and intelligence operations. The analysis of the challenges of technology alone warrants reading the book.

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As to the harder problem of how to address those challenges, however, the book is not as strong. Hershkovitz calls for radical transformation and observes that by “focusing on the threat environment, rather than how digital technologies are changing the operating environment, reformers end up calling for only modest changes.” Exactly what these dramatic changes are, however, is only vaguely sketched, as if showing the general route to be followed rather than the specific turn-by-turn directions. To be sure, his suggested changes are all thoughtful, but precisely what shapes they should take, let alone how they could be implemented, are left mostly to the reader’s imagination – and the reader wishes that Hershkovitz’ insight and expertise were equally applied to that objective. This is partly a criticism but more of an exhortation.

For example, he observes that the Sherman Kent paradigm (as set forth in the latter’s Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy) of intelligence being separated from policymaking may be outmoded: “To maintain relevance in decision-making processes, especially at the strategic level, intelligence services must move away from the perception that their role is limited to interpreting facts and that they must remain detached from decision-making processes to avoid “contaminating” the intelligence product.“ Whether or not the reader concurs, it would be helpful to understand in greater detail what such a model would look like, so that one could more readily see what benefits might flow from that approach.

Similarly helpful would be a blueprint for how the IC might integrate the analysis of open-source information with surreptitiously obtained information – a critical problem that the IC has grappled with for years. There’s no discussion of whether it makes sense to continue the legacy structure of 18 component organizations within the IC – almost all of which were formed before the advances in technology that are the subject of the book. Hershkovitz emphasizes (correctly, in this reviewer’s opinion) that the IC and the private sector must work more closely together, but once again, exactly what that might look like is only broadly outlined. Hershkovitz posits five “principles for intelligence transformation…connection, collaboration, critique, creativity and content expertise.” These intuitively all sound correct and appealing, but precisely how are these principles to be put into practice? Perhaps spelling out such details would require another volume or is simply too complex, but that is precisely what the IC must now do to execute the new National Intelligence Strategy.

In that regard, even though the reader may wish more practical specifics, this book is very much a valuable resource for anyone engaged in the execution of that strategy, and doubly so for anyone teaching or taking a course on the modern intelligence organization.

The Future of National Intelligence earns 3.5 out of 4 trench coats

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