We are constantly hearing about the three-letter agencies – CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA – but do we really understand what they do or how they impact the lives of average Americans? Based on what we hear in the news, we just know that there are intelligence leaks, hacking, wiretapping, surveillance, and that there is a general mistrust between the intelligence community and the new Administration.
But it’s not just the Trump Administration. In 2015, John Harwood, a journalist with CNBC conducted a simple twitter poll asking, “Who do you believe America?” A mere seventeen percent said they believe US intel officials, while 83 percent said they believe WikiLeaks. Even more shocking, over 84,000 people answered this twitter poll. A typical poll sample in America is around 1,000 adults. I suspect these results reflect not a failure of the intelligence agencies, but rather the fact that most people have no idea what those intelligence agencies are doing.
I served in the Navy as an Intelligence Officer for seven years. Each intelligence agency is different and this is true in the military as well, so I do not claim to be an expert on the Intelligence Community or its mission. However, I do think it’s important to share with the American people how these intelligence agencies work to protect our nation. Let me start with a basic definition of “intelligence.” It’s not just spy stuff. Intelligence is information that has been collected inside or outside the country and has been analyzed and presented to decision makers.
I’ll use a simple example. Let’s say you live near an airport and every day you enjoy watching the planes land. You’ve gotten used to the airline symbols on the tail of the aircraft so you can now tell the difference between the United flights and the Korean Air flights. You have also grown accustomed to their schedule, so you know that the FedEx aircraft leave early in the morning and land back at the airport around the same time every night.
This is all just information. It’s not intelligence. Now, let’s say one day you observe an aircraft fly over the airport but it doesn’t land, and you don’t recognize the airline symbol on the tail. You don’t think much of it, and it doesn’t happen again until the next week, same time, same day. Then it happens again on the third week, same time, same day.
Now you start to wonder, where is this aircraft from, is it commercial or private, is it an international flight, why doesn’t it land, why does it fly over just once a week, and where is it going? Maybe you even get out your binoculars and look closely at the tail, and you see a country flag. Then you look up online which country that flag belongs to.
You also learn that it’s a military airplane.
Now things are getting interesting. You still don’t know why the plane is flying overhead or where it’s going, but you know something just isn’t right. You write down all this data (time, location, direction of flight, facility overflown, aircraft size, markings, tail number, number of engines), and go present it to the local police, explaining how the normal pattern of flight operations is off kilter. This is intelligence. It’s timely, it’s actionable, and it’s accurate.
I am not encouraging anyone reading this to start tracking flight patterns around the airport, but I am trying to give you an idea of how intelligence can be essential to preventing an unwanted incident.
The above example may sound silly or unlikely, but in 2012, the Department of Homeland Security released a report saying that terrorists use flyovers to conduct reconnaissance or rehearsals for planned attacks, and there were several reported incidents similar to the example above.
In June 2007, four men plotted to blow up “aviation fuel tanks and pipelines at the JFK International Airport in New York City. When their plan was realized by intelligence officials, they alerted police and Russell Defreitas, the leader of the group, was arrested in Brooklyn. The other three members of the group, Abdul Kadir, Kareem Ibrahim, and Abdel Nur, were detained in Trinidad.
In our very complex intelligence community, there are seventeen agencies that are involved in the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence. In other words, they are looking for breaks in patterns or unusual activity, analyzing it and presenting it to the President or other high level decision makers. In some cases, this information can prevent an attack here at home.
In other cases, the activity may not be happening in the U.S., but it may be happening in a country where we have an Embassy or troops stationed, and we want to prevent harm to Americans overseas. Or it could be that we find out information that needs to be shared with an ally so their law enforcement or military can take action to prevent an incident in their own country.
More times than not, intelligence is collected overseas and the intelligence agencies are working to protect American citizens and American assets in other countries.
In addition to preventing attacks, intelligence provides decision makers with analysis of global trends. In fact, there is a publication called Global Trends 2030 produced by the National Intelligence Council. This 160-page report mostly talks about economic growth, poverty, food and water scarcity, anticipated spread of disease, technology changes, urbanization, and climate change.
This isn’t exactly the exciting stuff that makes the news when there is a possible wiretapping or hacking scandal. But it is still really important, because it challenges our policy makers to think about how they should use resources now and in the future. The current President will have to make decisions about whether to build a new aircraft carrier or a hospital ship, whether to bolster the Army or the State Department, whether to provide more food aid to impoverished countries or invest in stronger vaccinations to prevent the spread of disease.
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Intelligence can help stop a terrorist attack. It can also provide vital information to help our allies around the world. But it’s equally important that intelligence help us figure out where to invest, how to use our resources, and how to achieve the one goal we all have in common: stability and security around the world.
Someone watching aircraft patterns over the airport isn’t going to provide the information to support global stability, but the seventeen national intelligence agencies, working together and sharing information, can absolutely give the President the information he needs to make decisions that will contribute to global stability and national security.
This is why it’s so important for average Americans, the media, and the Administration to know and appreciate what our intelligence community does for us.