“In the intelligence business, bigger is not necessarily better.”
- Bruce Riedel, former Central Intelligence Agency analyst
In this age of digitalization and technology, intelligence agencies across the globe process massive amounts of information about individuals, sub-state actors, and governments every day. Intelligence experts and military leaders often assume that the goal of intelligence work is to gather as much information as possible in order to formulate a more comprehensive picture of the world. The United States, in particular, has become a global epicenter of intelligence work—4.2 million US citizens, more than 10% of the country’s population, have some form of security clearance. However, this aggressive intelligence gathering does not make for better-informed government agencies or higher quality security policy. Instead, excessive information collection leads to information overload on both the individual and institutional levels, impairing the US intelligence community’s ability to do its job. What’s more, US government agencies do not use this information effectively, due to overclassification problems. These inefficiencies in intelligence ultimately sow instability in the international system and increase the likelihood of conflict between states.
Too Much Information
The US intelligence community is currently inundated with information. This poses a serious challenge to effective intelligence work. Overwhelmed by data, analysts lose the ability to pick out what is important and fail to make good judgments. In a 1970 book, futurist Alvin Toffler of the International Institute for Strategic Studies coined the term “information overload” to describe situations in which an excess of information results in poorer decision making. Today, this phenomenon holds true on both an individual and an institutional level. Modern psychology teaches that the human brain can only focus effectively on so much information at a time. As a person tries to complete more tasks simultaneously, his or her efficacy in dealing with each individual task diminishes in a phenomenon called “cognitive overload.” Psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino writes that information overload leads to added stress, indecisiveness, and less effective analysis of decisions. This feature of human attention has clear implications for security policy: attempting to collect more and more information makes a nation less secure when it overloads intelligence analysts.
Information overload carries over to the institutional level in three ways. First, institutional skill is in some ways nothing more than an aggregation of individual talent. If every member of a group is overhwelmed by an excess of information, then the organization as a whole is unable to operate effectively. Secondly, institutions may face the challenge of circular reporting. In the process of collecting massive amounts of information, agencies may collect the same information twice from different sources. When faced with high volumes of incoming reports, intelligence agencies cannot easily prevent this duplication of data. It is particularly difficult to detect circular reporting when the shared provenance of the information is obscured—for example, when the information is delivered to intelligence officers through secondary sources. Not only does circular reporting add to inefficiency, it also can lead analysts to place too much importance on the twice-reported information. This is because analysts measure the credibility of intelligence reporting in part based on how many independent sources confirm the report. That standard becomes problematic, though, if one source appears to multiply through circular reporting. Third, organizations fall prey to the sheer complexity of their own intelligence gathering frameworks. These three factors make information overload a serious problem at the institutional level.
To make things worse, institutions are notoriously ineffective at evaluating themselves. Leaders of organizations like those inside the US intelligence community are more likely to keep their jobs or to be promoted if the organization they manage appears to be successfully and efficiently living up to expectations. The head of an agency therefore has a vested interest in appearing competent, leading to strong efforts to avoid unfavorable evaluations, especially from the inside. This means that leaders face powerful incentives to suppress negative evaluations, marginalize the internal evaluators, and overlook their own shortcomings. Intelligence institutions thus cannot easily identify or resolve information overload.
Unfortunately, it may prove impossible to solve both individual cognitive overload and institutional information overload: the solution to one problem exacerbates the other. Individuals should take breaks and limit their number of concurrent projects in order to minimize cognitive overload. This suggests that organizations should hire more analysts to deal with the flow of intelligence. However, as organizations grow larger and more unwieldy, the problems of circular reporting and complexity become only more serious.
These cognitive and institutional problems are degrading the capability of US intelligence agencies to keep track of world events and to use information to guard against security threats. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the US intelligence community has ballooned: since the attack, 263 separate organizations have been created or reformulated. Those offices represent 20% of the government organizations that do intelligence work. The analysts among the 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances produce an overwhelming number of intelligence reports – so many that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence cannot keep track of exactly how many reports are completed each year. Perhaps most strikingly, the National Security Agency intercepts and stores 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other communications every day, a small portion of which are organized into 70 databases. Paradoxically, then, by trying to do more, US intelligence agencies are accomplishing less.
Too Much Secrecy
The US intelligence community does a poor job sharing information internally, between agencies and between analysts, because vast portions of that information are overclassified. Overclassification occurs either when information is classified but should not be, or when information that is classified should be classified at a lower level.
This is by no means a new problem. Almost six decades ago, a Department of Defense report argued that overclassification had “reached serious proportions.” More recently, public figures from John Kerry to Donald Rumsfeld have expressed strong concerns about how many documents are classified in the United States. Excessive classification has persisted because it arises from a fundamentally perverse incentive structure facing decision makers. Officials who decide whether to classify documents and how strictly to limit their circulation face virtually no consequences if they classify a document whose contents did not warrant such a designation. On the other hand, those officials are punished severely for failures to classify sensitive information. This leads decision makers to err on the side of caution, choosing to classify documents at higher levels in uncertain cases. The result is massive overclassification and institutional failure to make information available where and when it is needed.
The numbers are striking. In 2010, officials in the US intelligence community made 22 million more classification decisions than they had in 2009, reaching an annual total of 76.8 million classification activity events. These estimates include both original decisions made about the classification status of new incoming information as well as derivative decisions reviewing previously classified information. Spending levels also act as an illuminating illustration of the scale of overclassification. The Information Security Oversight Office, the US government agency that keeps track of trends in classification and intelligence management, publishes annual reports on the state of the intelligence community. In 2011, the US government spent almost US$11.31 billion on all classification efforts. This number does not include the costs of classification by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Security, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, or the National Security Agency. Those expenditures are themselves classified.
By contrast, the total cost of all declassification by the US government was only US$52.76 million—more than 200 times less than the amount spent on classification. Perhaps most tellingly, Elizabeth Goitein, Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, reports that in 92 percent of cases in which a member of the public appeals for the declassification of a record, the agency in question determines that at least part of the relevant document did not need to remain classified. Secrecy is out of control in the US intelligence community.
Overclassification has become an obstacle to intelligence sharing across agencies, potentially leaving analysts in the CIA without easy access to necessary information gathered by the NSA (or other agencies), and therefore, with diminished ability to formulate an accurate picture of world around us. The lack of transparency that necessarily results from such large-scale classification also decreases accountability, thereby reducing the incentive for analysts to carry out accurate intelligence reporting. Analysts cannot easily be reprimanded or commended for their work unless their superiors can gauge the accuracy of the information they produce and use. Excessive secrecy also precludes open discussion of security policy questions, fueling public ignorance on issues of national security and eliminating the government’s ability to take into account the voice of the people. Essentially, the US intelligence community has limited itself by placing too much emphasis on secrecy and not enough on efficiency.
Intelligence and International Insecurity
The failures of US intelligence do more than just erode US security. Given that the United States shares intelligence with many of it allies and coordinates with militaries across the globe, especially since 9/11, lapses in judgment and inconsistencies in intelligence on the part of US analysts cause ripple effects throughout the military and intelligence com-
munities across the world. Since 1946, the United States has upheld a signals intelligence sharing agreement—often called “Five Eyes”—with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Washington also cooperates closely with newer allies in the Middle East and South Asia, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan. US intelligence agencies have even reached out to governments that have traditionally not been their greatest partners—nations such as China and, before the Arab Spring, Libya and Syria.
This means that any failures of US intelligence are multiplied and spread across the international community. These shortcomings in US intelligence collection have serious security implications for the world as a whole. States make decisions about entering, exiting, and preparing for war based on their perceptions of the international system, their views of how power is distributed, and their understandings of what capabilities other states have. All of these assessments are shaped by the United States’ and other nations’ abilities to collect accurate, relevant information and distribute that intelligence to allies.
Furthermore, less effective intelligence work heightens the chance of war between states. One classic problem in political science deals with why war occurs: conflict is costly for both winners and losers, which seems to suggest that it is irrational for two states to wage war. One prominent explanation for the existence of war, then, is that states act rationally but make mistakes due to imperfect information. That is, if the world were in fact exactly the way a state perceived it, then that state would be acting rationally. But, because the world differs in some significant way from that state’s view of it, the state makes irrational choices. Specifically, governments make miscalculations surrounding relative military capabilities, strategies, the intentions of allies to provide support, or the resolve of military and civilian leadership to pursue a drawn out conflict. A state’s misunderstanding of one or more of these factors could lead it to overestimate its ability to win wars, leading it to enter more conflicts.
Historically, there have been many wars founded on misinformation or incomplete intelligence – conflicts which could have been avoided by better intelligence work. Overclassification prevented US intelligence analysts from making the right connections in the months and days leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001; the 9/11 Commission later blamed those intelligence gaps on “overclassification and excessive compartmentalization of information among agencies.” Moreover, the US war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 began because of a widely held belief that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed and was perhaps willing to use weapons of mass destruction. This claim proved false, but the war nonetheless claimed more than 50,000 US and Iraqi lives, left more than 100,000 people wounded, and condemned Iraq to years of instability. With better intelligence work, the US intelligence community could have seen this miscalculation before it was too late.
Today, faulty intelligence gathering still poses a threat to peace. For example, without accurate information about Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intelligence about the nature and locations of its nuclear plants, a risk-averse Israel could overestimate the need to take drastic, preemptive measures against Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already called for international action to stop Iranian development of functional nuclear weapons, calling that prospect “...the main [problem] facing not only myself and Israel, but the entire world.” Israel’s decision to strike or not to strike Iran depends in large part on the Israeli government and military’s perceptions about Iran’s strength, capabilities, and intentions. If faulty intelligence leads Israel to believe that Iran is putting the finishing touches on a nuclear arsenal or that Iran intends to use a nuclear weapon against Israel, Israel will likely carry out an airstrike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. Such action may be acceptable or even responsible if Iran is indeed in possession of a nuclear weapon, but if that intelligence turns out to be false, an Israeli strike would destabilize the region without achieving much. Inadequate information therefore continues to have the potential to create unnecessary conflict.
US military strategy and security policy depend heavily on the ability of intelligence analysts to piece together a clear, coherent, and accurate picture of the world. Unfortunately, the agencies tasked with gathering intelligence have overreached their capacities and grown far too unwieldy, while at the same time placing too much importance on secrecy. This hinders their ability to do their job: due to individual cognitive overload, institutional information overload, and the overclassification of intelligence, US intelligence offices can no longer accomplish what they are intended to do. By trying to do too much, the United States has harmed its own ability to collect intelligence. This problem grows even more serious when one considers that the United States shares intelligence with allies across the globe. Unless the United States rapidly improves its ability to gather and sort through intelligence, the international system will remain less stable and more prone to conflict for the foreseeable future.
“In the intelligence business, bigger is not necessarily better.”