“On its face,” writes Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic’s Politics blog, “the National Intelligence Strategy document released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence [on September 15] seems like a pro-forma exercise in accounting. . . . But in the hands of Adm. Dennis Blair, it is a document about priorities and about competing values.”
Indeed. The new National Intelligence Strategy (NIS), a document required quadrennially by the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, is unquestionably a document about priorities—and probably about competing values as well. Ambinder, however, misses the most informative lens through which to discern the priorities showcased in the new NIS. Other commentators miss it too, focusing their analyses primarily on the NIS’s identification of Russia and China as nation-state challengers of American interests, along with Iran and North Korea. But the new NIS is best approached from the perspective of the previous NIS, published in 2005.
From this perspective, the updated boilerplate on the organization of the intelligence community is not nearly as significant as the change in how priorities in national security are framed. These priorities are captured in each document in a list of “Mission Objectives” for the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC), which derive from the sitting president’s National Security Strategy (Obama’s is not yet published). The lists merit reproduction here. The 2005 list reads:
1. Defeat terrorists at home and abroad by disarming their operational capabilities and seizing the initiative from them by promoting the growth of freedom and democracy.
2. Prevent and counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
3. Bolster the growth of democracy and sustain peaceful democratic states.
4. Develop innovative ways to penetrate and analyze the most difficult targets.
5. Anticipate developments of strategic concern and identify opportunities as well as vulnerabilities for decision-makers.
Contrast this with the Mission Objectives from the 2009 list:
1. Combat Violent Extremism—Understand, monitor, and disrupt violent extremist groups that actively plot to inflict grave damage or harm to the United States, its people, interests, and allies.
2. Counter WMD Proliferation—Counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery by state and non-state actors.
3. Provide Strategic Intelligence and Warning—Warn of strategic trends and events so that policy-makers, military officials, and civil authorities can effectively deter, prevent, or respond to threats and take advantage of opportunities.
4. Integrate Counterintelligence—Provide a counterintelligence capability that is integrated with all aspects of the intelligence process to inform policy and operations.
5. Enhance Cybersecurity—Understand, detect, and counter adversary cyber threats to enable protection of the Nation’s information infrastructure.
6. Support Current Operations—Support ongoing diplomatic, military, and law enforcement operations, especially counterinsurgency; security, stabilization, transition, and reconstruction; international counternarcotics; and border security.
Conspicuously absent from the 2009 Mission Objectives is bolstering the growth of freedom and democracy and sustaining peaceful democratic states, either as a separate objective or as a means of defeating terrorists. Also absent, of course, is the expression “Defeat terrorists,” for which “Combat violent extremism” is substituted. The verb “prevent” is gone from the objective regarding WMD proliferation, leaving only “counter.” The impression is inescapable that no decisive “end-state” is implied in these objectives, only an ongoing struggle, from which a vision for the growth of democracy—and perhaps even for the sustainment of peaceful democratic states—has been excised.
These changes did not occur randomly or without forethought. An NIS, by law, draws its mission statement for the USIC from the basic national-security objectives stated by the president. We can expect Obama’s new National Security Strategy (a document prescribed by the National Security Act of 1947 and updated by most presidents in their first year of office) to contain nearly the same objectives outlined in the new NIS. If the USIC does not anticipate having to support bolstering or promoting the growth of democracy, defeating terrorism, and preventing the proliferation of WMD, it is because the president and his most senior national-security advisers are not assigning those objectives.