Human Intelligence

An Interview with Fran Townsend

Townsend: I’ll give you an example. When we were doing our evaluation, we found that the analytic community didn’t have a common syntax for evaluating and writing about the credibility of sourcing. There was not a common system by which analysts were evaluated and promoted. Nothing for their professional development. We didn’t have a system where we encouraged people to be detailed outside of their home agency and serve in another component of the intelligence community to better understand how that worked. A lot of that isn’t fixed.

What had fundamentally been the responsibility of the community management staff under the CIA director became what was the DNI. The DNI was meant to be, for the intelligence community, the enterprise manager, the person taking a comprehensive look across all our intelligence agencies for budget capability and planning. I think that has gone a long way to fixing the problems that the WMD Commission identified. I think, to be fair, there are issues about the DNI, about its structure, some of which the Trump administration has tried to address. There were concerns in the intelligence community that the tasking they would get from the DNI was repetitive, in addition to policymaker staffing. I think some of that has been addressed.

They’ve reduced the size of the DNI staff. It is a more streamlined system to ensure that it is not an unnecessary added burden on the individual components of the intelligence community. I do worry about the budgeting authority of the DNI. The legislation that was originally proposed gave the DNI greater muscle, if you will, in terms of budget and personnel authority. That’s not the legislation that got passed. The DNI has had to work by power of personality. I think it worked fine for Jim Clapper and it’s working fine for Dan Coates. It didn’t work so well for Denny Blair. I do worry about that, over the long term. This should be an institution that stands on its own strengths and merits, as opposed to the power of the individual.

OR: Are there areas where you see the U.S. intelligence community, which has come in for a lot of criticism over the past 15 years, really getting it right?

Townsend: I think by and large the intelligence related to the North Korea threat has been pretty dead on. This is not an easy target to collect against. I do think North Korea is a place where we can feel pretty good about them getting it right in not only the analysis but the collection on a very difficult target. In a post-9/11 world, the policymakers focused the intelligence community exclusively against terrorism to understand how al-Qaeda and its successors worked, how they operated, how they communicated, and we turned hard against that.

When you do that in the intelligence community — because it takes time to build a collection capability, particularly in human intelligence — that meant we were doing other things less. What do I mean by that? Traditional intelligence collection: understanding leadership intent and leadership command-and-control, whether it’s military, or political, against adversaries. Think Russia, China, Iran. That sort of traditional intelligence collection, which was the bread-and-butter of the intelligence community prior to 9/11, we were doing less of. I think you’re finding now, so many years post 9/11, a desire to rebalance. We need to be able to do both. We need to understand the terrorism threat against us.

There are other threats. We have to also understand terror finance, counterproliferation, bio and WMD. We’ve got to understand political and military capability and leadership. We need intelligence on our adversaries’ and our allies’ command-and-control capabilities, and what their intentions are. Those are very different, and all very hard things to do, but with finite resources, you have to rebalance to make sure you can do that. I think that’s a challenge for the intelligence community. I think it will continue to be. We’re always going to be in an environment of limited resources.

OR: Gen. Michael Hayden suggested in these pages that government is going to have to be more transparent while shaving, as he put it, a few points off of its operational efficiency. What is your take on the transparency/security conflict?

Townsend: I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and so I think back to Senator Moynihan. He was of my state, not of my party, but I can remember having a conversation with him when I was working during the Clinton administration at the Justice Department. It struck me that he was right about one thing — and I think it came home to us in the wake of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. We overclassify. If you overclassify, the more you have to protect. The more you have to protect, the more difficult it is, the less likely you are going to be able to protect everything. The bigger the area that you’re trying to protect, the more likely you’re going to fail. I think we have to make up our minds. What are the critical secrets that must be classified? We have determine how hard we’re willing to fight to protect those secrets. I don’t think, as a government, we do that very well.

I think we suffer from that. Because I think it lends itself more to things like leaks, and capabilities we have invested billions of dollars in being blown by a single individual who decides to make them public. I think we’ve got to wrestle that problem to the ground. Having said that, I think we also have to make up our mind. I don’t disagree with General Hayden. Sometimes when policymakers are going to make fundamental decisions on these sorts of balances, we’ve got to be willing to have a conversation with the American people.

The American people, if they don’t like the way policymakers make those calls, can go to the ballot box and vote them out of office. To the extent we’re able to have a more public conversation, I think we should. The example that I’d give you of a place where I think we can and we should are things like social media companies. Do we want Facebook, and Google, and Twitter to be making judgments about what can ride on their platforms and what can’t? Do we want to know how they’re making those judgments?