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How Does the Intelligence Community Adapt in the Age of AI?

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OPINION — CIA Director William Burns’ recent remarks to the Ditchley Foundation highlighted three key challenges to American security; (1) strategic geopolitical competition; (2) transnational threats; and (3) the “revolution in technology which is transforming how we live, work, fight, and compete with possibilities and risks we can’t yet fully grasp.” 

This last point requires emphasis—because never again will ‘technology change’ occur as slowly as it is occurring today.  So how does the Intelligence Community (IC) adapt in the Age of AI?

From World War II until the early-2000s, the IC was revered for driving technology innovation to advance U.S. national security. Working closely with America’s scientific and commercial communities, the Agency launched America’s first spy satellite, CORONA, in 1960, and soon after helped develop lithium batteries to improve the performance of surveillance equipment and prolong satellite operations.

In 2003, the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, backed a start-up called Keyhole, which focused on geospatial data visualization applications. That same year, In-Q-Tel backed Palantir, the company where I now serve as a senior advisor. Beyond advancing American national security, IC-led innovation also improved Americans’ daily lives. Today, there are more than 7,000 satellites in space; lithium batteries power everything from our cell phones, laptops, and toothbrushes, to increasingly, our vehicles; and Operation Warp Speed distributed about 500 million COVID vaccine doses across 64 jurisdictions in 12 months. 

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The public sector began to lose its collective innovation edge with the advancement of the internet, software and commercial broadband in the early 2000’s. Study after study warned of the IC’s eroding marginal share of scientific and technical knowledge and the risks that posed to U.S. national security.

While the Department of Defense (DoD) still faces challenges, some military leaders have made great strides to become more effective adopters of emerging technology.  Given the gravity of the moment, IC leaders must look to these examples for inspiration and harness existing innovation capabilities.

What did the Pentagon get right?

Starting in the early-2010s, the DoD took major steps to ensure the U.S. military was both a leading consumer and partner in American innovation. In 2012, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter established the Strategic Capabilities Office to find new ways to use existing weaponry to counter new threats. Then, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work designed the Third Offset Strategy to address the erosion of the US military’s technological superiority and to focus on technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and data analytics. In 2017, DoD established an effort to automate and augment the military’s use of full-motion video in the campaign against ISIS. The Department partnered with industry to apply technology to automate functions and enable analysts to work more effectively and efficiently.

By 2022, Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks launched the AI and Data Accelerator Initiative and directed the new Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office to take charge of the Global Information Dominance Experiments while leading the department’s Joint All Domain and Command and Control efforts. The benefits of this multi-year campaign of learning are evident every day as the U.S. helps Ukraine fight a digital war against an analog enemy.

Today, the CIA and broader IC face a daunting challenge. In 2021, the CSIS Technology and Intelligence Task Force published a remarkable report on the state of IC innovation and technology, finding that despite a plethora of opportunities to apply technology across intelligence missions, progress was blocked by a culture that was “resistant to change.” The report indicated that the IC was “averse to risk-taking, particularly in acquiring and adopting new technologies and integrating outside information sources.”

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To be fair, recent signs indicate that the IC may be preparing for its own technological revolution. For example, CIA Director William Burns created a Transnational and Technology Mission Center and appointed the Agency’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer. Similarly, the DNI-driven commercial cloud program has advanced to a multi-cloud environment. However, for the IC to leverage the Age of AI and progress against geopolitical and transnational threats, leaders must turn these organizational and contractual changes into mission wins.

Leading the AI revolution for intelligence

In 2017 DoD tackled the challenge of quickly processing massive volumes of video into actionable intelligence.  In 2023, the IC should apply AI to the massive declassification opportunity. Declassification imperatives include (1) enabling an informed citizenry to hold their government accountable; (2) building public trust; (3) combating the coming surge of mis/disinformation; (4) sharing more information with foreign partners (e.g., replicate the effort that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on other topics); and (5) saving taxpayer dollars used to maintain huge troves of classified data.

DNI Avril Haines announced in January, that the IC is already seeing some progress in piloting AI solutions against this challenge.  By publicly committing to prioritize this issue, being transparent about its progress, and achieving material impact, the IC will learn how to work effectively on a large AI program and set an example for other AI projects to succeed. 

Once the IC learns how to do Human+Machine teaming, AI can help the IC identify misinformation and deepfakes leading up to the next election; can generate content to bypass China’s censorship regime; dramatically improve offensive and defensive cyber operations; advance our ability to monitor foreign technology developments; and improve both analytic and human intelligence tradecraft.    

The IC also can supercharge American industry by setting both technical and ethical standards. If the IC can trust an AI to develop alternative hypothesis for a Presidential Daily Brief, surely a food manufacturer can trust an AI to identify alternative supply chain opportunities.

This statement from DNI Haines’ 2023 Annual Threat Assessment is profound: “Foreign intelligence services are adopting cutting-edge technologies—from advanced cyber tools to unmanned systems to enhanced technical surveillance equipment—that improve their capabilities and challenge U.S. defenses. Much of this technology is available commercially, providing a shortcut for previously unsophisticated services to become legitimate threats.” 

With the AI revolution now in full swing, the IC must do these same things—partner with the private sector and the broader defense community—to steal secrets and make sense of them.  Applying AI to aid in the declassification process has significant merits onto itself and can be the jolt that the IC needs to reemerge as a leader in adopting emerging technology.  

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals. 

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

Have a perspective to share based on your experience in the national security field?  Send it to [email protected] for publication consideration.

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