U.S. Intelligence Faces Challenges From Tech, Bad Actors—and the President

Three recent stories about U.S. intelligence offer insights into how the massive effort to collect and interpret data about threats to the United States has performed over the past few years, and how that effort must increasingly deal with challenges from technology, bad actors and even from political leaders. The first story is about the planned release of old U.S. intelligence documents, which are straightforward enough. The second is the publicly acknowledged damage done to American signals intelligence from hacking or leaking. The third, and perhaps most troubling, is President Donald Trump’s startling statement while overseas in Asia that he trusts the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin more than the American intelligence community.

These stories have a common thread around transparency, whether intentional or not. More transparency about the strengths and vulnerabilities of intelligence collection and analysis is an important democratic value, and it should make citizens more informed. But that transparency also risks contributing to the erosion of public confidence in intelligence institutions, and with it the public’s support for the huge investments needed to keep U.S. intelligence on the cutting edge.

The easiest part of this story is the release of historical documents related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and the recent treasure trove found in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after the U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. These document releases—the first mandated by legislation in 1992, the second a presidential prerogative—provide new insights and details that historians will use to revise and refine our understanding of these events.

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