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Former top CIA official warns that U.S. intel faces "moment of reckoning" after 2016 failure

The U.S. intelligence community's failure to grasp the magnitude of the social media influence campaign Russia waged ahead of the 2016 presidential election may be one harbinger of a larger and more complex set of challenges its agencies will face, according to a new essay co-authored by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell.

With co-author Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Morell argues that rapid technological developments have already begun to change the rules -- if not the nature -- of collection, analysis, privacy and surveillance.

"That breakdown [in 2016] should serve as a wake-up call," Morell, who is also a CBS News senior national security contributor, writes with Zegart in an essay published Tuesday in Foreign Affairs. "The trends it reflects warrant a wholesale reimagining of how the intelligence community operates."

Morell and Zegart single out top leadership at the time -- Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and former CIA director John Brennan -- for some of the blame. They argue the leadership should have been more attuned to social media attacks being carried out by Russian nationals operating on Russian soil, or by Russian operatives dispatched to the U.S.

"What is clear," they write, "is that Russia's nefarious use of social media went undetected by U.S. intelligence for too long and that this failure is just a preview of what lies ahead" – absent meaningful adjustments to the community's posture and strategy.

They also argue that the U.S. intelligence community will need to make fundamental changes to the way its agencies hire, innovate and structure some of their most central operations in order to maintain a competitive advantage against adversaries.

Among the key challenges, the authors say, is the explosion of online, open-source information, the speed with which it becomes available to the public and to policymakers, and the likelihood that information's credibility may be increasingly difficult to ascertain. The emergence and increasing accessibility of new satellite and information technologies is also likely to narrow the capabilities gap between the U.S. and its competitors, Zegart and Morell contend.

"From biotechnology and nanotechnology to quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI), rapid technological change is giving adversaries new capabilities and eroding traditional U.S. intelligence advantages," they say. "The U.S. intelligence community must adapt to these shifts or risk failure as the nation's first line of defense."

The intelligence community's relative unpreparedness for the events of 2016 has only slowly come to light as several investigations, including the Senate Intelligence Committee's ongoing probe into that year's elections, have laid bare how extensive and sophisticated Russia's incursions were. The investigations have also shown how comparatively muted or delayed the warnings were that came from the intelligence community.  

The problem with too much data

The proliferation of cell phones and internet access worldwide – and the immense amounts of data generated as a result – is both a pitfall and an opportunity for intelligence agencies, Zegart and Morell say, suggesting that normal citizens become "knowing or unwitting intelligence collectors" as data about their habits, attributes and location are gathered, analyzed and disseminated.

"Social media has become such a valuable resource that consoles at U.S. Strategic Command's underground nuclear command center now display Twitter alongside classified information feeds," they note.

But at the same time, countries like Iran and North Korea, whose abilities to collect intelligence on targets around the world may previously have been limited, can now do so "at little cost," the authors write. "Secrets still matter, but open-source information is becoming more ubiquitous and potentially valuable – both to the United States and to its adversaries."

Open-source data can also blow the U.S.'s cover. In one example, Morell and Zegart point to the case of a Pakistani technology consultant named Sohaib Athar who live-tweeted the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)," Athar wrote as U.S. forces descended.

"It is easy to imagine how similar incidents could put future U.S. operations at risk," the authors conclude.

And while more information on hard targets can be helpful, too much information, overall, can be overwhelming. "Intelligence agencies have always had to find needles in haystacks," they write, "Today, the haystacks are growing exponentially."

The perils of speed

Zegart and Morell also argue that as global sources and amounts of data have proliferated, the pace at which they become available has accelerated – to the possible detriment of slower, more rigorous analytical products, which have long been at the center of the intelligence community's services.

"In the era of Google, when information from anyone about anything is just a swipe or a click away," the authors write, "open-source content increasingly flows right into the hands of policymakers without vetting or analysis."

"This raises the risk that policymakers will make premature judgments instead of waiting for slower-moving intelligence assessments that carefully consider source credibility and offer alternative interpretations of breaking developments," Morell and Zegart warn. It also means intelligence analysts – like many other kinds of professional information-handlers – are forced to move faster and cut short time that might be spent compiling and vetting a given analytic judgment.

There is also the problem of credibility and verification. Intelligence agencies, Zegart and Morell say, will face the "Herculean task" of exposing "deepfakes" – convincingly manipulated video or audio content that could fool consumers into believing never-uttered statements were made, or purely imaginary acts were in reality carried out.

"Imagine watching a seemingly real video that depicts a foreign leader discussing plans to build a clandestine nuclear weapons program or a presidential candidate moles ting a child just days before an election," the authors write, without suggesting a solution for the challenge either scenario would present.

"Deception has always been part of espionage and warfare, but not with this level of precision, reach and speed," they say.

Possible solutions

The solutions Zegart and Morell offer are mainly long-term and aspirational; some of them are novel.

Among the newer suggestions they propose is the creation of a new agency dedicated specifically to open-source intelligence; they argue that the CIA's in-house version of a solution, called Open Source Enterprise, is "akin to keeping the Air Force within the Army, hobbling a new mission by putting it inside a bureaucracy that naturally favors other priorities." It would require a change in thinking at the agency -- secrets still get priority treatment at the agency, they say, while open-source information is relegated to second class.

"Open-source intelligence will never get the focus and funding it requires as long as it sits inside the CIA or any other existing agency," the authors write.

They also call for a new, "comprehensive strategy" on intelligence. Zegart and Morell largely dismiss the Trump administration's recently released National Intelligence Strategy as "complacent" and "containing vague exhortations" about integration and innovation. The intelligence community also needs a new hiring system, new mechanisms for adopting emerging technologies, and an overall better relationship with Silicon Valley, the authors say. 

The CIA declined to comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the few things that should not change – and that the intelligence community should in fact fight to preserve, Morell and Zegart conclude – is its reputation for and commitment to objectivity.

"This core principle is being tested by a president who publicly disparages his intelligence offices and disagrees openly with their agencies' assessments," the authors write. If the intelligence community begins ceding to political pressures, no other adaptations can help.

"If [the intelligence community] ever loses its reputation for objectivity, nonpartisanship, and professionalism, it will lose its value to the nation," Zegart and Morell say.

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