Peter Dazeley

The Intelligence Community Doesn’t Warn About All Attacks Against the US Homeland. Why Not?

A simple policy change could help defend America against threats to non-military targets.

Russia and China attack the U.S. commercial technology and scientific research sectors through persistent cyber intrusions and the theft of protected scientific information and intellectual property. Both countries peddle disinformation—knowingly false information and propaganda—on U.S. social-media platforms, sometimes with the witting or unwitting assistance of social media influencers, to shape Americans’ views. Yet members of the commercial sector and the American public do not receive intelligence that could warn potential victims about the methods and goals of foreign governments.

The “attack surface” for foreign threats against the U.S. increasingly includes entities— business, organizations, people—that are not part of the U.S. government or military. But too many of these potential victims are unaware of threats against them, are not warned with intelligence reporting about such threats, and lack information about options to protect themselves.

U.S. intelligence agencies have a duty to warn individuals if intelligence reveals a threat of bodily harm against them, like kidnapping or murder. It may be time to expand this duty, to warn of nonviolent threats too, including those of cyber attack, intellectual-property theft, and disinformation campaigns. This was one major finding of a new RAND study that my team conducted in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

The duty-to-warn policy and its implementation mechanisms are governed by Intelligence Community Directive 191. The Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, has the authority to modify ICD 191. Expanding it to nonviolent threats could create a policy environment for providing intelligence as a service to the American public. This policy change could allow the DNI to signal that the IC is attempting to address the plight of the commercial and nongovernmental sectors as the targets of persistent attacks from foreign actors. The DNI could then tell intelligence analysts to nominate intelligence warning products for release to specific entities or the public at large. 

In the first year, this change would create a new policy environment without the need for additional resources. As intelligence analysts nominate products for dissemination, IC leaders could monitor whether dedicated staff are needed to manage the demand.

The policy change would represent a major leap in acknowledging that foreign attacks against the United States increasingly involve non-military targets, including physical targets, like the World Trade Center towers, cyber targets, and even the “beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors” of ordinary Americans. Russia persistently attacks American cyber infrastructure and in 2017 conducted the most expensive cyber attack the world has experienced to date, crippling global commercial supply chains. North Korea perpetuated a ransomware attack against a movie studio to prevent the release of a film that disparaged its leader. China steals up to $600 billion per year in American intellectual property. And, rather than hack voting machines, Russia decided to hack the voters themselves by conducting a covert influence campaign against American citizens before the 2016 Presidential election.

The private sector is engaged in national security, whether the IC wants to acknowledge it or not. Attacks against pipelines, hospitals, and scientific intellectual property demonstrate how the private sector sits on the frontline of this new battlespace, often without access to intelligence assessments about adversaries’ intentions, strategies, and tactics. As one former senior U.S. intelligence official said, the “threat surface is disproportionately outside government, and companies are making decisions that affect national security without us.” 

When the IC has intelligence about threats to nongovernmental entities, it could be shared. The DNI could expand on the IC’s duty to warn by including these types of threats in ICD 191.

Cortney Weinbaum is a senior researcher specializing in intelligence and national security at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.