In this May 5, 2020, photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In this May 5, 2020, photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP / Andrew Harnik, Pool

Four Functions the Intelligence Community Should Rethink

The pandemic and new challenges abroad require change.

As he settles into his role as Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe has the opportunity to lead the intelligence community through a series of unprecedented national crises and position it to thrive in the “new normal.” Given laws on civil service hiring, handling classified information, and other requirements unique to the national security apparatus, intelligence agencies may be less able than private companies to reinvent their business models on the fly. However, adversity often presents opportunity.  

In the wake of 2020’s transformative events, U.S. intelligence agencies must challenge longstanding institutional habits and embrace new ways to meet the nation’s strategic challenges.

DNI Ratcliffe should consider new approaches to four vital functions that support the IC’s core missions. 

First, enable more unclassified work and expand remote work policies. The public health emergency has demonstrated that the IC must change the way it works with information. Currently, intelligence personnel work in secure facilities where they process sensitive data to produce classified reports. The COVID crisis has prevented full staffing in these cramped secure spaces and highlighted the need for secure mobile communications that could enable some types of classified work at home. After years of discussing the potential of secure remote work, the Army is launching a program to allow remote access to certain types of classified data. With telework proving to be a critical tool to contain the spread of COVID-19, now is the time to turn these ideas into reality.

Due to the current health crisis, many IC analysts are working remotely, drawing on open source information like social media trend analysis and satellite imagery. Why not keep them at home, where they can produce insightful unclassified evaluations of threats like foreign disinformation, sanctions-busting, and threats to critical infrastructure? Until remote classified access becomes widespread, analysts working in secure spaces can add nuance to unclassified analyses by incorporating sensitive data. This way, the IC can produce the comprehensive all-source intelligence assessments senior policymakers expect while also generating unclassified reports that can be shared with private sector partners, allies, and the public.

Second, embrace collaboration with non-government partners to protect critical sectors of the economy from cyberattack and economic espionage. Given the importance of critical infrastructure services to Americans’ health and safety, the intelligence community, which typically serves senior government decision makers, needs to think of these private entities as customers as well. If the NSA collects intelligence that indicates foreign hackers plan to attack the healthcare sector, for example, it must provide warnings to sector representatives at a classification level that enables prompt action. At present, a private sector target could only be warned after a lengthy declassification process or after a Homeland Security component lacking all of the original intelligence developed a releasable assessment. 

Third, enhance collaboration with the private sector to develop advanced technologies. We no longer live in a world where we have to hunt for data. Instead, drowning in data, we must use technical tools to find value in the information we already possess. The IC must be a leader in the application of game-changing technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, but it must partner closely with private sector innovators to get there.

Fourth, ensure opportunities for underrepresented groups. As widespread rage over systemic racism and social injustice has shown, all organizations must take steps to ensure all voices are heard, valued, and incorporated. Agency leaders must commit to recruiting more minority candidates, ensuring minority employees have equal opportunities for career advancement, and increasing diversity in their leadership ranks. The security clearance process must develop more sophisticated ways of evaluating first- and second-generation Americans’ foreign ties so more immigrants and children of immigrants can be hired.

Previous transformational events, such as the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, forced agencies to adopt new missions and adapt to new threats. The men and women of the intelligence community rose to the challenge then, and they will do so again in response to the unprecedented events of 2020. As DNI Ratcliffe sets his priorities, we encourage him to seize the moment and make these needed reforms to position the intelligence community for the years ahead.