event coverage

The State of US National Intelligence: Observations by the "Big Six"

The Intelligence and National Security Summit concluded with a plenary session featuring the leaders of the Intelligence Community's largest agencies: CIA, NGA, FBI, NSA, NRO, and DIA. They covered a wide range of issues and challenges, most of which had a strong cyber dimension.

Eric Schmitt of the New York Times moderated the panel whom Ellen McCarthy (President, Nobilis) introduced as the heads of the "Big Six" panel: John Brennan (Director of Central Intelligence), Robert Cardillo (Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), James Comey (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation), Admiral Michael Rogers (Director, National Security Agency and Chief, Central Security Service), Betty Sapp (Director, National Reconnaissance Office), and Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart (Director, Defense Intelligence Agency).

Agency Perspectives

Each Director spoke in term about his or her agency. James Comey began. He said that the FBI has rewritten its vision statement for the next five years. That vision is to stay ahead of the threat through leadership, agility, and integration. He illustrated that vision with the Bureau's response to the threat of the Islamic State. They had to refocus, to get better at working across domestic and international boundaries. "The ISIL threat," he said, "is coming at us in the form of people and cyber threats." He warned that "going dark"—threat actors' ability to hide their communication with strong encryption—was a problem, and that the Bureau is working through the challenges of going dark "by collaboration that goes beyond traditional deconfliction."

CIA's Brennan expressed polite agreement with Director Comey's "choice of words." The world, he said, has changed in terms of the diversity of threats it presents, and this change has been substantially enabled by advancing technology. "We have a digital domain that dominates our lives, and makes our environment more challenging."

Admiral Rogers framed the challenge NSA faces as being the generation of "meaningful insights in a world where technology has made this more difficult." Citing the importance of workforce development, he said, "We must step back and ask how we can stay ahead in the problem sets, and make some changes that optimize us for the future." This involves fundamental change in the workforce. People, integration, and coordination will be essential to the future.

General Stewart noted that it's been three years since the Defense Intelligence Agency opened its integrated intelligence center, "so integration for DIA is a done deal." He cited his agency's response to the coup attempt in Turkey as an example of success. He characterized his agency's challenge as delivering content to its consumers "in a real, dynamic, integrated way" that supports their decision-making. He called this "user-defined intelligence," and said delivering such intelligence is DIA's goal.

Noting that the National Reconnaissance Office is "known for building the best in space-based collection systems," and for working to keep them ahead of targets and threats, Director Sapp said that her agency has recently focused on assuring that it has ground systems that can take best advantage of those space-based systems. "That means cyber. It means a huge change—systems that learn, think, and integrate across intelligence disciplines." NRO is placing much more emphasis on resilience, she said. "We take great pride in doing from space what some people think can't be done from anywhere."

Director Cardillo, speaking for the youngest agency "in a very old profession," said the NGA needed to connect its assessments with other agencies. "The world has changed around us. We no longer live within walls."

The Russian Threat in Cyberspace

Moderator Schmitt asked about a resurgent Russia, and its cyber offensive operations. Secretary of Defense Carter, Schmitt noted, just warned Russia not to meddle in democratic processes. Even if you're not prepared to attribute, he asked Director Comey, would you agree with Carter that there's a Russian threat? Comey replied that the Bureau takes the threat very seriously. "We work hard to understand whether there's a foreign power trying to influence our elections—intentions, motivations, and tools." And he declined to talk about an ongoing investigation.

To Schmitt's follow-up question about whether state election systems had been stress-tested, Comey demurred that he was no expert in the matter. He did say that, while the Constitution makes elections a state responsibility, the Federal Government had an important support role to play in helping the states hold elections securely.

Brennan, when Schmitt turned to him, said that the FBI had investigative responsibility for this matter, and that CIA was trying to understand capabilities and intentions. He was unsurprised by the breadth of the problem, given the severity and complexity of the cyber threat.

Comey sought to draw a distinction. He said that people tend to conflate Internet-connected voting and the voting system proper. They're not coextensive. "The beauty of the voting system is that it's disparate and clunky." This reduces the risk of tampering with vote counting. In a way the clunkiness is a blessing—there's a lot of pain, but also a lot of resilience.

Turning to Admiral Rogers, Schmitt observed that the NSA Director has often spoken about the importance of making adversaries pay a price. Rogers said that, with respect to Chinese hacking, "we've seen ongoing dialogue and some positive development." But he added that, generally speaking, he thought no one was comfortable with the current situation. Many threat actors have concluded there isn't any price to be paid, and that's not good.

In this case, Schmitt asked, "why all the tip-toeing around Russia?" Rogers replied that this was a policy matter. "We intelligence professionals generate insight so our policy leaders can make good decisions. There's no one-size-fits-all response." Comey added an additional reason for caution in public attribution: "We also want to make sure a nation state doesn't know what we know."

The Caliphate and the Terrorist Threat

Schmitt turned to counterterrorism—ISIS seems to be shrinking on the ground. What are the implications of this for national security? General Stewart said that the fight on the ground was long and difficult (in part because it will involve fighting in cities, and "urban operations are hard"). He agreed that there could be a danger in succeeding too quickly, winning the battles before we have the means in place to rebuild and stabilize a society.

Brennan said that ISIL would remain a presence in Syria and Iraq for some time, even as it shrinks. Its fighter move, its cells re-form, and its members often remain unregenerate. "They'll remain a challenge for years to come. Europe is doing a better job recently, in the wake of recent terror attacks."

Comey agreed with Brennan's assessment. He said the threat over the next five years would be "hundreds of hardened killers metastacizing from the crushing of the Caliphate." He did see a significant advantage to the destruction of the Caliphate in its claimed territory: "ISIL will lose its ability to attract travelers and to produce the slick propaganda it needs to motivate screwed up individuals to commit acts of violence." This is because slick propaganda, in Comey's characterization, "requires facilities and bureaucracy," and ISIL is going to lost these.

Asked about the responsibility Islamic leaders might have in stemming radicalization within the US, Comey said they had "the same responsibility parents and others have to steer young people and disturbed people away from destructive paths. We need each other. We need their help, and they need ours."

Presidential Transition

Asked how their agencies intended to respond to shifting threats, and to the policy changes that would come with a news Administration, Sapp stressed growing resilience, and Cardillo saw the Presidential transition as an opportunity. "We're able to redefine our value proposition in ways that might enable the next innovation," he said. "We may be more open to commercial and academic engagement."

General Stewart said, "I would advise the next Administration to be ready for the world as it is, not as you'd like it to be. It's a come-as-you are game." And he would ask the next Administration to "help me understand your priorities, and then stick with them."

Asked specifically about the future of NSA, and its connection to US Cyber Command, Admiral Rogers asked that the new Administration tell him what their expectations and priorities are. "What do you want us to generate?" With respect to NSA and Cyber Command, he thought the right thing to do would be to separate them, but keep them aligned.

Brennan said, deadpan, and to some laughter, that the CIA was "aware there's a Presidential election in November." They've set up a transition office to brief the incoming Administration about their capabilities and dependencies. He noted that there would also be a transition in the Director of National Intelligence, and he graciously characterized James Clapper's "orchestration" of the Intelligence Community as "masterful." Asked if he would stay on, Brennan said he had a daily contract with the President.

Comey (who said, following Brennan, "I'm stuck in a dead-end job, too") noted that the FBI has been working on transition for some months.

Labor Force Issues

Schmitt asked how big the gap was between the specialists the agencies have and the workforce they need. NGA's Cardillo thought the gap "too large." He said, "We've come to understand that what we have done won't work in the future. We've created a development capability alongside our operations team." He called these "immediate feedback teams," and said the crucial question was how fast they could scale.

Slack, explaining that, "when you talk IT, NRO brings down a lot of data from space. It's got to be processed on the ground." Today, commercial processing services have outstripped NRO's own, "so we'd like to put our resources into the payloads. The basic processing power is there to buy." NRO intends to take more advantage of commercial processing power.

The Crypto Wars

Reading a question from the audience, Schmitt asked if anyone had had their personal data stolen. And, to those on stage, he asked any who had been the victim of such theft to raise their hands. (Brennan and Rogers did so.) "And then," Schmitt asked the panel, "explain your position on end-to-end encryption."

Even though he hadn't raised his hand, Comey recognized this as a question for him and said (to considerable laughter) "I love strong encryption. I love end-to-end encryption. But I also care about public safety. Those two are clashing. That's why I think we need an adult conversation. Absolute privacy has never been a feature of American life. We're going to a place where huge swaths of our life are absolutely private. That has costs in terms of public safety. Maybe that's OK. But we need to understand these conflicting values without demonizing each other."

Rogers said that we could have this dialogue "without yelling at each other. "In the end, we're going to have two conversations: what could we do (technical, legal), and what should we do. They're related questions, but they're not the same."

Whither the Intelligence Community?

Schmitt's final question was an invitation to reflect on the way forward. Rogers said that "human analysis and artificial intelligence aren't a binary solution." Artificial intelligence is invaluable for scaling, but you cannot forgo human analysis.

Cardillo thought that how we use, monitor, and connect the data will be crucial. "We're all part of the ICITE team. We're seeing the benefits of it." Sapp talked about the value NRO was deriving from Sentient, "a ground system, a learning system, and a multi-iINT system. People just don't move at that [AI] speed."

Brennan called for the Intelligence Community to work as "effectively and efficiently as possible." He sees us heading inevitably to a world where artificial intelligence will be pervasive, and we need to prepare for it.

And they closed with general agreement on the importance of making it easy for qualified individuals to move between the Intelligence Community and the private sector.