Changes Coming to Intelligence Communities, Official Says
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 3, 2014 A tremendous change has taken place in U.S. intelligence capabilities over the past decade, and even bigger changes are underway, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers said today.
Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum, Vickers said the nation faces an assortment of national security challenges, including several permutations of al-Qaida and its affiliates, homegrown violent extremists, unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, Russian revanchism, cyber threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"While we've had a lot of success in severely degrading the al-Qaida core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, they continue to pose a threat, in particular a [constitutional] threat down the road," Vickers said.
"But the three biggest threats are al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- centered in Yemen -- and the growing al-Qaida threat in Syria and al-Qaida's affiliates, … who are spread elsewhere and who are taking advantage of what we call metastasization … across the Middle East and North Africa. … And so this really remains job one for the intelligence community and our special operations forces," he told the audience
The Syrian civil war is a particularly vexing national security challenge, Vickers said.
"It's a horrific civil war, with 150,000 dead,” he said. “It's a humanitarian crisis of mind-boggling proportions, with some 9 million internally displaced [persons] or refugees who have fled the country. … And, of course, it's giving rise to a significant terrorism threat."
President Barack Obama has stressed that the United States is committed to supporting the Syrian opposition in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the undersecretary said. "We'll work with the Congress to ramp up our support for the opposition," he added.
The most concerning aspect of Russia's taking of the Crimean Peninsula and involvement in Ukrainian politics is the destabilizing effect these actions are having on the region, Vickers said. "While Russian forces have pulled back their troops from the border region, they have not ceased their support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and that threat remains to the government of Ukraine and its territory," he explained.
Cyber threats range from the theft of intellectual property to destructive attacks, the undersecretary said. "Over the past couple of years, we've had destructive attacks against South Korea, against Saudi Arabia, and denial-of-service attacks against the U.S. financial sector," he said, adding that the probability is high that there will be more destructive attacks in the future.
These challenges are broad and enduring, Vickers said. "Taken together, these are highly asymmetric challenges," he said, and solving them will require a series of "offset" strategies -- oblique approaches designed to address a specific aspect of each challenge.
"Also critical to dealing with this set of enduring challenges is the continued economic and technical leadership of the United States, which … is a national security imperative,” he said.
Intelligence is the first line of defense in national security, Vickers said. It informs national security policy, enables intelligence-driven precision operations, provides commanders and the commander in chief with options, and it prevents strategic surprise.
"Intelligence is a significant source of advantage for the United States. … It's an advantage that's very important to us, but it's also one that has to be used aggressively, but also prudently, to make sure we're helping our leaders solve problems and not adding to their problems," Vickers said.
The United States is making a number of investments to sustain its intelligence advantage well into the future, the undersecretary told the audience.
"There are big changes ahead in the way we use our overhead space architecture -- some of the biggest changes that we've seen in several decades," he said. "It will be possible … to have persistence we've never had before."
Through the Defense Clandestine Service, the Defense Department will strengthen its human intelligence and cryptanalytic capabilities, the undersecretary said.
The Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles have become the "signature weapon" of counterterrorism operations over the past decade, Vickers said.
"It has enabled the most precise counterterrorism campaign in the history of warfare, and it is our most effective instrument," he added. "We are very healthy in this area, but we are looking to make advancements in some advanced sensors as well as extending the range of our second-generation platform considerably."
The Defense Department is making significant progress as it seeks to develop a cyber force and its associated support structures, the undersecretary said. "The key to making that cyber force effective … has really been our partnerships with industry, … particularly in the area of information sharing," he said.
Separately, the sharing of information within and between agencies has vastly improved in the years since 9/11, Vickers said. "Our intelligence agencies work much closer together,” he added. “It's hard to find a case where a single intelligence agency has been responsible for a significant intelligence breakthrough or operation."
Vickers said he and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have made it their top priority to ensure that the national and defense intelligence apparatuses are integrated and transparent to one another.
In addition, the national security strategy depends on enabling partners, he said. "To make the national security apparatus effective across the interagency -- both domestic and foreign -- also requires a high degree of intelligence sharing," he added.
In that vein, Vickers said, DOD and the intelligence community are modernizing their information technology systems to strike a balance between the need to protect information while also distributing it.
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @rouloafps)