The summer’s headlines—from how to verify the Iran deal to combating the self-declared Islamic State to, most recently, new revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) and the telecom giant AT&T—all have something in common: the role of intelligence in keeping the United States safe. For better or worse, since the release of diplomatic cables from Wikileaks and classified NSA documents from former government contractor Edward Snowden, the American public has a deeper understanding of at least some of the ways that intelligence contributes to U.S. national security. The NSA documents were the source of The New York Times’ recent story about AT&T helping the NSA spy on a huge amount of U.S. Internet traffic. A mostly healthy debate about how to balance security and privacy has become a standard part of public discourse, and intelligence professionals are contributing usefully to the conversation. In the process, intelligence, and its relationship to policymaking, has evolved.
At the annual Aspen Security Forum last month, senior intelligence community leaders explained the various roles their agencies play in an increasingly complex set of tasks assigned to them by policymakers. Today, the interface between intelligence and policymaking has more layers than ever, thanks to the creation after 9/11 of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which established a superstructure over the intelligence community. Monitoring and managing these key relationships is a daunting task. The fact of a unifying macro threat —radical extremism—in theory helps set priorities for the big bureaucracies and clarifies their mission. But since the preoccupation with al-Qaida has given way to the Islamic State and its atrocities, intelligence leaders and their law enforcement colleagues don't always agree on which radical group is more dangerous, or whether the robust system built after 9/11 is agile and responsive enough. That tension has grown as the IS threat has presented itself as everything from a conventional military challenge for U.S. friends in the Middle East, to a domestic source of insecurity for Americans.
The new buzzword in Washington, “countering violent extremism,” is intended to demonstrate that the responsibility for preventing IS from harming Americans and American interests is a shared one. It runs the gamut from highly secretive intelligence and military operations, to diplomacy and development strategies, and to responses by state and local officials and the communities they serve. Intelligence works across this spectrum, from sensitive collection efforts to target IS operations and prevent any further territorial gains, to the work of the FBI in local communities, including schools and faith institutions, to try to stop the recruitment of young people to the radical group.