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Event Recap

October 18, 2022

Congressional oversight of intelligence for great-power competition

By Aidan Poling

On October 4, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice hosted a hybrid public event on the topic of “Intelligence Community and Intelligence Community Reform.” The event was part of a series sponsored by the minority members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) titled Beyond the SCIF. The event focused on how HPSCI can adjust its work––and that of the US intelligence community at large––to refocus from counterterrorism to great-power competition. The experts agreed that the great-power challenge will require a bipartisan approach to intelligence oversight that encourages the adoption of open-source intelligence and places an emphasis on integrating the expertise of other committees.

The event was moderated by Ranking Member Michael Turner (R-OH). The expert panel included Undersecretary Kari A. Bingen, Senior Fellow and Director, Aerospace Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies and Former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security; Representative Jane Harman, Distinguished Fellow and President Emerita, Wilson Center and Former Ranking Member, US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; Dr. Matthew Kroenig, Director of Studies and Acting Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council; and Representative Glenn Nye, President & CEO, Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and Former Member, US House Armed Services Committee.

Reorienting to great-power competition

The most prominent theme of the panel was the challenge involved in shifting the intelligence community from a mission focused on counterterrorism to collection and analysis for great-power competition. Bingen noted that twenty years focusing on counterterrorism had “atrophied” the intelligence community’s capabilities when it came to operating in more contested environments. Kroenig observed that, during the War on Terror, the intelligence community had become very skilled at exquisite data collection and targeting of individual high-value targets. He argued that great-power competition required a shift in focus from data collection to more strategic analysis.

A whole-of-nation approach

Harnessing the aggregate power of the United States to compete with China and Russia has become an increasingly significant focus for policymakers. The panelists contended that HPSCI’s approach to intelligence should reflect this. Bingen remarked that policymakers frequently struggle because they only see half the picture, either intelligence on adversaries (the “red team”) or on US capabilities (the “blue team”). Emphasizing that information must be more broadly distributed across committees, Harman and Turner suggested that lawmakers would be better off having access to both “blue” and “red” team information.

Importance of bipartisanship

The panelists heartily agreed that a bipartisan approach on the intelligence committee would be vital for effectively conducting its work. The emerging bipartisan consensus in Washington on prioritizing competition with China might serve as a catalyst for future bipartisanship on HPSCI. Nye and Harman both praised Turner for fostering such a spirit in his time on HPSCI, noting that an advantage of HPSCI historically has been its bipartisan ethos.

Harnessing OSINT and new technology

New technology and the rise of open-source intelligence (OSINT) are dramatically changing how the intelligence community should operate. Nye underlined how the Biden administration’s release of intelligence before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine shows how intelligence can be part of information operations. The war in Ukraine is an example of OSINT being actively harnessed by both warfighters and the public to assist in warfighting and shaping the information environment. Harman noted that publicly available commercial satellite imaging has become a highly beneficial source of intelligence. New technologies like machine learning and automated language translation should be better harnessed, according to Bingen, to allow intelligence analysts to make sense of the mass of data now available to them from these sources.

Reforming classification and attracting the intelligence workforce of tomorrow

The panel agreed that an ongoing challenge that the HPSCI needs to address is the over-classification of information. Harman remarked that, while in Congress, she had championed legislation aimed at increasing first responders’ access to relevant intelligence and improving information flow between local, state, and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Over-classification and the glacial-paced security clearance process are major also obstacles to harnessing and recruiting new personnel. Harman suggested a system of partial clearance be created so individuals with relevant skills could still be consulted by the intelligence community. Nye and Turner observed that they have repeatedly heard from college-age constituents that the lengthy security-clearance process was a major impediment to pursuing a career with the intelligence community.

You can re-watch “Intelligence Community and Intelligence Community Reform” here. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Aidan Poling is a Young Global Professional in the Forward Defense Practice and second-year master’s student in the Georgetown Security Studies Program.

Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

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Image: FBI Director Christopher Wray, NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, and DIA Director Lt. General Scott Berrier attend a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, in Washington, D.C., U.S., April 15, 2021. Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS