The furor over the NSA's data collection and surveillance programs has been fierce, but the debate it has sparked has been far too narrow. The value and legality of the programs is extremely important, but we should be asking a more fundamental question: Does the U.S. intelligence apparatus, transformed in the dozen years since 9/11, meet the challenges and threats that the United States faces today and into the future? Is the "business model" of U.S. intelligence -- how intelligence is gathered, analyzed, and used, basically the key operating features that comprise the U.S. intelligence enterprise -- sufficient and sustainable, or does it need to evolve to something different or something more?
The 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provided new missions, a new focus, and ready laboratories for testing, building, and honing counterterrorism and counterinsurgency techniques. At the same time, the global rise of Internet, mobile, and social technologies -- along with the Big Data that those technologies generate -- allowed the intelligence community (IC) to innovate, implement, and sharpen new techniques for tactical intelligence and targeting. Many of the targeted drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, for example, relied on social network analysis that included cell phone call data in combination with human intelligence. And link analysis of cell phone records and behavioral analysis of social media and Internet use are key components of the PRISM program.
But for all the IC's tactical innovation in support of military or covert operations, it has yet to make similar transformative strides to leverage new technologies and new operating models to generate strategic intelligence. How might the IC use the same Internet, mobile, and social technologies to revolutionize how it develops better foresight into things like the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, or the recent civil unrest that has rocked Turkey?
The opportunity for dramatic transformation cannot be overstated. The traditional operating model for intelligence production is a lot like the "old media" operating models in the private sector. In those models (think: print books or music CDs), intellectual capital was produced, owned, and tightly controlled by a few actors in hierarchical organizations, and the physical product was disseminated through fixed distribution channels. For the IC, information gathering, analysis, and the creation of strategic judgments occurred in a similar manner. Controlled intellectual capital came in the form of stolen secrets. Intelligence was produced and vetted by a small number of professionals, and their distribution of the final product tightly controlled.
The hard times that have befallen newspapers, record labels, and book publishers serve as a cautionary tale for what lies ahead for U.S. intelligence if we fail to modernize not just technology, but the whole "business model" of how intelligence is produced in the 21st century. Wikipedia killed Encyclopedia Britannica. Craigslist and eBay killed newspaper classifieds. iTunes is killing the music CD business. And Kindles and iPads are killing print books. If the intel community clings to the old, closed, secrets-based model for developing strategic intelligence, the cost won't be in dollars and cents, but in our security as a nation.
To be sure, the IC has taken some steps to revise its operating model. After 9/11, it established fusion centers to move information out of silos and encourage collaboration between different agencies. Fusing the analytic and operational capabilities of multiple agencies in one facility, with unified leadership, provided improved capabilities to field commanders.
At the same time, fusion centers are not and cannot be the evolutionary apex of IC collaboration. Information integration needs to be about much more than putting analysts in the same room and asking them to work better together. Fusion centers do not take full advantage of the power of networks, which characterize the information age. They are like the clunky online chat rooms of the late 1990s, when today we need the speed, flexibility, and crowd-sourcing power exemplified by tools like Facebook and Twitter.
In addition to fusion centers, the U.S. intelligence community in 2005 created the DNI Open Source Center to increase the availability of open source information for the intel community. While this was a positive step, it was a long time coming. There had been repeated calls, starting at the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, from military and congressional leaders, to create an open source intel center. More recently, the DNI has begun to invest in studies of how to use big data to improve strategic intelligence and foresight.