Losing their edge to China and Russia, intelligence agencies take action

The US Capitol Building is seen at dusk in Washington, DC, February 6, 2018. (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

A ruthless swarm of activity by rogue and hostile nation-states and their proxies has created a long, hot summer of headaches for Western intelligence agencies, and it’s only a little more than half over.

Since late June: A mysterious nuclear explosion has killed five scientists at a military base in Russia, more than 10 North Korean missiles have been launched and Iranian military forces both have shot down a U.S. military drone and have hijacked international oil tankers.

The incidents have brought the U.S. and its allies face to face with the reality that their adversaries are gaining on them — fast.

Not surprised by its surging adversaries, one U.S. intelligence official told WTOP: “We have seen that our long-standing military advantage has been declining.

“The difference between us and the next group of countries has been shrinking as China and Russia have reorganized and ramped up their technological efforts in cyber, space, AI and robotics,” the official said.

The news for the U.S. got worse on Tuesday after a report from an Australian think tank was released.

“America no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favorable balance of power is increasingly uncertain,” said the study from Australia’s United States Study Center, at the University of Sydney.

Specifically, and ominously, the report said China’s “growing arsenal of accurate long-range missiles poses a major threat to almost all American, allied and partner bases, airstrips, ports and military installations in the Western Pacific. As these facilities could be rendered useless by precision strikes in the opening hours of a conflict, the [People’s Liberation Army] missile threat challenges America’s ability to freely operate its forces from forward locations throughout the region.”

The report also highlighted the need to quickly and methodically inject resources — both human and financial — into a program to sustain and maintain robust, reliable intelligence capabilities, as China seeks to ascend to superpower status. Its self-stated goal is to replace the U.S. as the global leader in most every military, economic and technological category by 2025.

U.S. and Canadian intelligence agencies told WTOP that they are taking new steps to attract the talent and resources necessary to confront the challenge.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said in a statement: “These enhanced efforts to recruit diverse, technology minded professionals began during Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart’s tenure (2015-17) as DIA realized the need for different skills in the data-driven world being created before our eyes.”

According to the statement, the current DIA Director, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, “has sharpened the agency’s focus on this effort, making recruiting and work force development the number one strategic priority for DIA.”

DIA said as well that it’s “taking extra steps to expand our ability to reach into and hire from populations with which we’ve previously been unable to communicate.

“We’re finding talent in areas of the country, and in a wider variety of educational disciplines, from which we’ve never before recruited.”

All of the intelligence agencies WTOP contacted said that there is an urgent need for a larger global presence outside of their borders.

In an April speech at Auburn University, CIA Director Gina Haspel said they’re sending more people into the field. “Not only case officers,” she said, “but analysts, technical experts and others.

“It all comes down to this: If you have a bigger footprint overseas, you can get more done where it really counts.”

The CIA is making a strong pitch, and Americans are biting, Haspel said.

“Our mission demands that we draw deeply from our nation’s rich and diverse talent pool. We just had our best recruiting year in a decade, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make the agency an employer of choice for all Americans,” Haspel said.

The CIA declined to elaborate on its recruitment numbers.

The National Security Agency, well-known for its technology, said in a statement that “people are our most valuable asset.”

Partnerships with academia, industry and government agencies are vital to developing the talent and tools the NSA needs.

“Through sponsoring programs like the National Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE), NSA is committed to expanding the pipeline of STEM and cyber talent for the intelligence community and the nation,” it said.

“CAE-designated colleges and universities,” it added, “meet rigorous requirements for cyber curriculum and caliber of faculty, and they are committed to cyber education outreach in their communities and developing the profession.”

The move to locate, educate and move more personnel abroad is not limited to U.S. intelligence agencies. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) told WTOP they’ve realized it was time for a bold move.

“Worldwide incidents of terrorism, espionage, weapons proliferation, illegal migration, cyber-attacks and other acts targeting Canadians — directly or indirectly — remain ever present,” said CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti.

“Since the bulk of such threats originate from, or have a nexus to, regions beyond Canada’s borders, CSIS needs to be prepared and equipped to investigate the threat anywhere,” Mufti said.

Alluding to modern intelligence gathering techniques, Mufti said: “Gone are the days of people in beige trench coats. Diversity in background, diversity in professional experience, willingness to learn and a curious mind are the most important attributes in prospective candidates.”

CSIS, she said, has added a new element to its proactive recruiting model, “by including on-site interviews giving hiring managers valuable face-to-face time with potential applicants and, in turn, providing future hires with the opportunity to ask questions in person.”

In 2018, CSIS said, it received more than 40,000 résumés from interested individuals — demonstrating that it is an employer of choice for Canadians.

Back in the states, DIA said its mission is to provide intelligence on foreign militaries and the operational environment to prevent and, if necessary, win wars. But “current databases that contain this information — the sum total of what the nation knows about adversaries’ capabilities, tactics and military doctrine — are now insufficient,” it said in its statement.

Recognizing that data is “proliferating at the speed of light,” DIA must “build a system capable of ingesting and managing large volumes of it, and making it available to both humans and machines.”

And to do that, the agency needs “a technology-savvy, diverse workforce with experience not only in analysis, but with an understanding of data science as well to parse the ever-expanding amount of data to keep ahead of rapidly modernizing foreign military forces who [aim] to become as capable as we are today,” it said.

WTOP spoke with other Western intelligence agencies, which declined to supply on-the-record comments. But they, like those who did speak on the record, said that technology is boosting the capabilities of adversarial and rogue intelligence actors, and that the alliance of Western agencies provides an advantage that has to be protected.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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