Starting over Imagining a new intelligence community

Let’s pretend the intelligence community doesn’t exist. It’s 2020, and the US government has finally decided that it needs a coordinated approach to understanding the world around it.

Deloitte’s Gov2020 project is a compelling map of the journey governments need to take to remain relevant to the expectations of their citizens. Before joining Deloitte Consulting, my career was in the US intelligence community (IC), a group of organizations that have approached the digital and information revolutions with caution and even skepticism. So in my perusal of the Gov2020 site, I kept imagining how its 39 drivers of change could affect the IC by 2020. It didn’t take me long to conclude that an intelligence business that accounted for and took advantage of the dynamic changes documented by Gov2020 would look nothing like the IC we have today.

But it’s not easy to completely change an existing organization. In fact, it’s nearly impossible, so I tried a thought experiment: Let’s pretend the intelligence community doesn’t exist. It’s 2020, and the US government has finally decided that it needs a coordinated approach to understanding the world around it. At first blush, this sounds far-fetched, but it’s useful to remember that the US intelligence community is of pretty recent vintage. The CIA was established by the National Security Act of 1947, and most other IC agencies have even more recent birth dates. Some might argue that intelligence agencies did not begin to function as a community until the establishment of the Director for National Intelligence in 2004. And overseas, many governments have yet to invest in complex intelligence superstructures.

Designing an intelligence community from scratch requires a diagnosis of the environment it would operate in and the projection of the type of intelligence capabilities it would need. Truth be told, our new IC would have to account for almost all of the 39 drivers affecting government in 2020, but two groups of drivers are particularly salient: One set describes the challenges the IC would face, and a second group represents new capabilities the IC would need to develop.

The IC’s challenges

Policymakers would recognize the world of 2020 as one where the East, particularly China, outgrows the West. National identities are also blurring because of the rise of the global citizen. New issues such as water scarcity and the impact of climate change are important to national security. And yet, terrorism and the actions of empowered individuals remain serious challenges, given that rising income inequality makes disaffected populations even more susceptible to extremist ideologies. Technology’s dark side is also a priority for the IC, as it seeks to protect national assets from ever-diversifying cyber-attacks. Of course, our newly-created IC would also be dealing with nation-state adversaries, but they would be one challenge among many and unlikely, for example, to serve as the intelligence community’s primary organizing principle. It could even be argued that in a world of megacities, countries would no longer be the best unit of organization or analysis.

The IC’s capabilities

Our new IC would emerge at a time when information is everywhere for the taking. Social media and mobile technologies produce floods of data never before imagined; in 2020, digital technologies would produce 90 zettabytes of information. That’s a 50-fold increase compared to 2010, and much of it is visual or sensor data. Sensor technology would allow for entirely new models of information collection. Imagine, for example, a sensor network that provides automatic price information on all basic foodstuffs worldwide, allowing IC data scientists to produce almost real-time status reports on a key indicator of political stability. Indeed, the revolution in analytics would largely determine the structure of our new intelligence community. Given advances in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and the sheer volume of data streams, the intelligence tradecraft would depend first on machine processing and filtering, freeing human talent to pursue high-level pattern detection and intuition development. These intelligence professionals would benefit from expanding human potential; in particular, advances in neuroscience would allow individuals—but more likely, diverse teams—to be matched to problem sets for which they are cognitively well-suited.

At the same time, the new intelligence community would find the world of 2020 imposing some constraints on its capabilities. For example, given the demand for radical openness and transparency from government organizations, leaders of the new intelligence community would default to making many of its intelligence activities public. In fact, some sense-making problems would be candidates for crowdsourcing solutions, which would provide the added benefit of understanding and building rapport with the public.

Programs that insist on complete secrecy would be scrutinized by IC leaders as well as oversight panels that, perhaps, include “private citizen” members. Such transparency in managing the new IC would also be necessary to provide the public with reassurances about how it handles privacy issues. Finally, the international, cross-border, and cross-domain nature of security issues means the IC would be designed from the ground up as a collaborative network with strong connections to other countries and non-government organizations. In 2020, speed of response and depth of understanding would trump secrecy every time.

I’m excited about the potential for different work processes and a novel, more open mindset. Greater flexibility and transparency could even make this new IC less controversial than the current one. I’m under no illusion, however, that we can reach this destination in five years, but my thought experiment convinced me that it’s a worthwhile and ultimately achievable goal.

I also think it’s a good idea to imagine what any organization or business would look like if we could build it from scratch. Even if you’re a business leader, open up Gov2020 and imagine how your business could operate differently in five years. Would you be international from the start? Would you crowdsource your hardest problems? Would you position your talent to do what they’re cognitively best at? All too often, history shackles us to outmoded legacy practices. Our imaginations, however, are the levers that can set us free.