As seen in The Defense Post, by Anna Varfolomeeva
Since the tragic events of 9/11, the United States has spent about $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism activities. Terrorism is a foreign as well as a domestic matter that requires robust response from many entities, including law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The Defense Post sat down with Michael Brady, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and former director of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center in the White House, to discuss intelligence gathering and challenges associated with it.
In September 2017, Brady published a spy novel, Into the Shadows: The Fever, which provided insight into intelligence community operations and sacrifices made to keep the United States safe.
The novel is the story of a career CIA non-official cover intelligence officer, Michael Brennan, and his work toward disrupting a scheme by Islamic State to introduce the deadly Ebola virus into New York City.
Anna Varfolomeeva: I found your book not only entertaining, but also quite educational. Do you think it is important for people to know about intelligence gathering and those who work to keep the country safe at the time when terror attacks have become widespread? Why?
Michael Brady: Thank you. I really tried hard to strike a good balance between entertainment and real-world intelligence collection. I think it’s important to honor the men and women in the intelligence community who keep us safe. They protect us, and do things we’ll never know of. They risk their lives every day and spend countless hours away from friends and family. We honor their service and this book attempts to do that.
AV: How has intelligence changed since you were in the White House for 9/11? What are the major challenges now versus then? What are the most serious emerging threats?
MB: Intelligence collection has become much more complex and the amount of data is overwhelming the analytical community. One of the biggest changes in the intelligence community has to be the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles and the moral and ethical challenges it brings to policy makers. Another change is the emphasis on human intelligence collection. Prior to 9/11, the intelligence community placed too much emphasis on technical collection systems and platforms (i.e. satellites and signals intercepts). These are tremendous assets, but HUMINT is one of the most powerful disciplines we have to understand the threat and their intentions.
One of the biggest challenges facing the intelligence community is the use of artificial intelligence. There is simply too much data to analyze and artificial intelligence will be required to assist with predictive intelligence analysis and predicting human behavior. Figuring out how to precisely do that will be tricky, but it’s going to be how intelligence analysis is conducted in the not too distant future.
Emerging threats are numerous. First and foremost, there is climate change. Regardless of one’s personal views on its causes, climate change will impact the global economy and cause disruption to human behavior. Climate change will impact water supplies, natural resources, critical infrastructure along and near coastlines, and likely start wars. Another emerging threat is propaganda. Intelligence agencies have long used propaganda during the conduct of their activities. Virtual Reality, augmented reality and the continued expansion of the internet will make nation states susceptible to poor decision making, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the world around them.
AV: A vast amount of data can now be collected – is data analysis key for modern intel gathering?
MB: Analysis is the key to supporting policy makers. The intelligence community has little difficulty collecting information. However, that data must be synthesized, and products must be created. Without quality analysis, policy makers are left to guess … and that’s how strategic mistakes are made.
AV: Your book talks about an intelligence success. When it comes to real life, what are the biggest intelligence successes and failures over the last 5-10 years?
MB: One of the biggest intelligence successes has to be the raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011. It took the intelligence community years to find him using a variety of collection techniques. There are other successes, but many we’ll not hear about for quite some time. There have been a few notable failures over the last 10 years. I believe one of the most high profile failures was not recognizing the threat from Islamic State in 2014. Their rise resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings across the globe. Those are human beings we miss and whose contributions to society were cut short.
AV: I think your book is one of the first novels that talks about ISIS and their attempts to stage a “spectacular” attack in a Western country. Now that the group is all but defeated on the battlefield, how likely is it that they redouble their efforts to carry out terror attacks in the West?
MB: The Islamic State will continue to operate for decades. Affiliates will continue to emerge across the globe while using the internet to spread their ideology. Their efforts to attack targets (people and critical infrastructure) will continue unabated. Most of these efforts will likely fail but some attacks will be executed violently and surprise intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Like al-Qaeda, the group will disperse into smaller cells with slightly different goals. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant.
AV: Your main character, Michael Brennan, partners with a Mossad agent to thwart an ISIS plot. How important are partner intelligence agencies’ intel-gathering operations and the sharing of intel for preventing terror plots?
MB: Joint intelligence operations between nation states is how modern intelligence collection is conducted. The United States intelligence community enjoys strong partnerships with many countries such as Australia, England, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, France, Israel and Germany. I just can’t stress enough how important intelligence sharing is. There are many more and without these relationships, our intelligence collection efforts against many threats would come to a halt.
AV: What are some of the challenges when it comes to intelligence gathering in places like Syria and Iraq? In your opinion, will the ending of the CIA train-and-equip program in Syria affect intelligence gathering there?
MB: The challenges in places like Iraq and Syria remain vast. Relationships take time and our HUMINT efforts in the region are limited. It’s simply very difficult to foster ling term assets when we move in and out of the region. This impacts trust and sources are more difficult to recruit. The train and equip program enabled relationships…nothing more. I don’t know if we have enough evidence those relationships were producing intelligence or simply being used to hunt and kill suspected militants and high value targets.