Overburdened and Understaffed: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century

After 38 years in the intelligence business, Thomas Fingar shared his insights at the end of Winter Quarter with a small audience as part of the Freeman Spogli Institute Payne Distinguished Lecturer series in: Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence and National Security, Myths, Fears, and Expectations. For the past three years, he was the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis as well as the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Prior to those positions, he had a distinguished career at the Department of State and at Stanford.

Fingar described how some view the American intelligence community as being “omniscient and incompetent”—one that is all knowing, but unable to connect the dots; secret agents and computer geeks that know about everything everywhere, but have no idea how anything is related. He lamented that Hollywood thrillers and spy novels have wrongly shaped many of these ideas.

Mr. Fingar returned to Palo Alto to help train students to properly scrutinize information and to share his experienced-based recommendations. He noted that everyone collects and analyzes information; some people just do it for a profession. When deciding what to wear based on the temperature, a person is practicing the same skills used by likes of the C.I.A., F.B.I., and N.S.A.

While the intelligence community has been criticized recently about its lack of quality reports and many mistakes, Mr. Fingar shared first-hand knowledge about its difficult tasks and responsibilities. Among his main observations about the increasingly complex world of intelligence gathering were that the United States’ technical capabilities are astounding and are getting better every day. In addition, collection of information is the easy part—interpretation requires skilled analysts. On that point he emphasized that the intelligence community collects much more information than it could ever process. Finally, he underscored that with the increasing power of technology comes increasing responsibility.

Mr. Fingar highlighted the need for critical thinking analysts. The intelligence community needs quick students with an ability to see the big picture. It is one thing for technology to enable us to collect millions of pictures but it is another thing for humans to decipher these pictures and make decisions. He stressed the fact that good collection abilities do not automatically lead to greater security. For example, Mr. Fingar shared that a picture showing a convoy of large trucks in Iraq led some to believe that the country was transporting weapons of mass destruction. Close analysis showed however that the largest truck was actually a fire truck escorting the transport of some small munitions. These analytical miscalculations lead not only to small problems, but also to wars.

Still, he explained that the process of information collection is not perfect either. The intelligence community must first deal with the volume of information; it must begin with a focused question to fashion collection plans as to not drown in information. Second, civil liberties must be protected. He asserted that there is a careful balance between protecting American citizens and ensuring everyone’s privacy.

Fingar concluded that it is clear that the intelligence community has problems, but given the breadth of information it sifts through, it is accomplishing astounding feats. Paraphrasing former C.I.A. Director Jim Woolsey, Mr. Fingar noted that after the Cold War, the entire community had to go through a shift from dealing with ‘one large dragon to hundreds of small snakes.’ The target has changed from an easily located giant to many quick moving, faceless enemies. He mentioned that given staff cuts and increasing responsibilities, this transition has not been easy for the intelligence community.

There has also been a “shift in focus from the security of the nation to the safety of individual citizens.” Now, the intelligence community is expected to not only ensure the safety of the continental United States, but also all Americans living abroad. Congress has recently turned to the intelligence community to deal with non-intel related issues such as the environment, oil prices, and even the global economy. For example, Mr. Fingar mentioned that he recently had to figure out when the Nyiragongo volcano in Congo was next expected to erupt. As an intelligence officer, he was given geological assignments. While 800,000 refugees were camped around the volcano, Mr. Fingar and his intelligence staff were scrambling to find the answer.

While the event was generally informative, he glossed over issues such as the slow moving uncreative tradition of agencies such as the C.I.A., F.B.I., and N.S.A. The audience was still left wondering about the effect of personal bias in the decision making of national security estimates. Given the many analysts’ liberal thinking, questions arise as to whether that is related to why war is often prescribed as the last, and worst, option. Although Mr. Fingar did not bring up issues such as the bureaucratic nature of the intelligence community, he provided many examples of the gigantic problems facing the world and the team of dedicated and equipped experts ready to confront such challenges.

Understanding the issues the intelligence community deals with on a daily basis allows American citizens to understand the large investments made for our safety. Mr. Fingar reiterated the fact that intelligence analysts “are not a collection of James and Jane Bonds”, but rather that they are individuals who have the United States’ safety in mind.

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