Intelligence Collection in Transition

Collection is one of the essential activities in intelligence. Not only does it involve some of the most daring and technically adept aspects of intelligence, it is also a major part of the United States intelligence budget. It even forms the basis for the security classification system, with classification of intelligence stemming from the harm that would be done to U.S. national security if the means by which intelligence is obtained were revealed.

Much of the intelligence collection system that the United States developed over many decades was dictated by two factors: the nature of the Soviet state and the ability to adapt or to create technology to penetrate that intelligence target. The Soviet Union was vast, secretive and largely what intelligence officers call a "denied area." Much of what the United States most wanted to know about it took place deep in its interior, driving the U.S. to find ways to penetrate that space with technology -- balloons, then airplanes and then satellites. The Soviet Union and other nation states were and are somewhat appealing intelligence targets, because some major aspects of what we wish to know "self-reveal." Military bases, large scale deployments and long-distance weapons tests (e.g., missiles) cannot be easily hidden. Of course, much that we wish to know -- plans, intentions, underground facilities, for example -- also remains more difficult to discover.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in a new international order. Theorists talked about "the end of history" and how transnational issues -- terrorism, crime, WMD proliferation, etc. -- would replace nation state issues. These blithe forecasts turned out to be inaccurate. The old agenda of nation states was not replaced by the new agenda of transnational issues. Instead, the old agenda remained, with the new issues added to it. The end result has been a growing complexity of collection problems that, coupled with a series of other factors (particularly a decade of severely constrained budgets during the 1990s and aging collection systems), have left intelligence collection in a state of uncertain transition.

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