This Decade's Terrorist Threat

Ten years after 9/11, the battlefield has changed. And America is more vulnerable than ever.

National-security budget cutting is on its way. But Washington must ensure that intelligence spending isn’t slashed. America is far more vulnerable to new-age threats than it is to those targeted by the vast resources we throw at various “wars on terrorism.” The battlefield has changed, and defense must change along with it.

The growing non-kinetic threats emerge from the virtual, digital world of the Internet and social media. Today, social changes beyond the control of national governments dominate the Middle East and potentially other areas, including China. Intelligence about these dynamics will come less from contacts with governments than from plumbing social media. Critical, even time-urgent data can be gleaned from Google. Consider the potency of the data that Google houses. It has better data concerning the virtual world than the U.S. intelligence community does. And though it is an American corporation, Google has no obligation to share even vital information with the U.S. government.

Monitoring the social media in other countries can be far more useful than trying to break into the diplomatic communications of political leaders. The administration is now more attentive to what the people—as opposed to the leaders—in a given state are thinking. Implicitly this changes the character of the data collected. For politicians, it may well be more important to know what everyone thinks is true than what is true. This is a huge shift in our national policy.

Recognition of the potency of social media leads immediately to questions of how to collect information using such sources. The number of ways may be limited only by the imagination (and national laws). Tasking collection amongst witting or unwitting social groups could be an expedient way of finding out what’s going on in some field of concern. Conversely, counterintelligence may be concerned about foreign tasking of collection in the United States. One can readily imagine that the tradecraft developed for traditional human spying could readily translate into the virtual world. Indeed, covert action in this world is all but inevitable. These are whole new realms that will be vital in the years ahead.

Dealing with the growing torrent of data available also radically changes the intelligence world. There is so much information out there that it is impossible for an analyst to review things firsthand, and so algorithms must be developed to sift through the digital flux to identify trends or anomalies that could have meaning. Analysts are moving further away from the tangible real world and beginning to analyze its derivatives.

Another vulnerability, and perhaps the greatest, is in American markets. The United States has treated national-security policy separately from financial and market policy. Typically, expertise in these areas is located in the Fed and the Treasury department. These analysts do not look at market data and ask, “Are we under attack?” This is a stovepipe problem that we need to fix. The precarious American financial position is a vulnerability that will not be lost on our rivals. State-directed market and financial actions may have the United States as their target. If the intelligence community does not collect and analyze these actions, it will become the next major intelligence failure. Bin Laden understood that one critical way to hurt America was by rattling its markets. He had limited kinetic means to achieve this goal. Others, state actors, will have more. One day the president will ask his advisors if we are being attacked in this realm. If he asked today, we could not answer.

There are other areas where directional shifts in intelligence seem warranted as we reconsider threat models. For example, while we obviously focus collection on the Middle East, it would seem that one country that has a far larger and immediate impact upon the United States is Mexico. Given the vulnerability of the America to events in its southern neighbor, it should be a far more dominant target of our intelligence efforts. Mexico is an example of whether we have calibrated these efforts commensurate with the potential effects on our country. Indeed, do we have correct definitions of what we consider to be a threat?

The world has changed today to a degree that calls into question fundamental premises about intelligence collection and analysis. It is in magnitude comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet last time the global-threat environment changed, the defense budget—and therefore resources devoted to national intelligence—did not adapt appropriately. There was a rush to register a “peace dividend” without realizing that the new threats required new intelligence methods. Now is an opportune time to systematically review the totality of our efforts.