Trump's intel chief must modernize the intelligence community

President-elect Trump's nomination of former Indiana Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race Cyber preparedness could save America's 'unsinkable aircraft carrier' MORE to serve as head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence comes at a difficult time for the U.S. intelligence community, which currently faces four major challenges.


First, the intelligence community is experiencing worsening relations with the incoming administration – as demonstrated by an unusually public and back-and-forth between the Trump transition and intelligence officials.


Second, the public has shown diminishing trust in the intelligence community following the Snowden affair, the failure to predict present turmoil in the Middle East, and most notably its inability to publicly prove Russia’s responsibility for the cyberattack against the Democratic Party. Trump’s aggressive attacks against the intelligence community have only fueled the fire. 

Third, tectonic geopolitical changes and major technological developments compel the intelligence community to reexamine (and potentially recalibrate) its perceptions, assumptions, structures, procedures and methodologies to make them more suitable to an unknown future. 

Finally, and probably most importantly, Trump’s grand strategy over the next few years will put great responsibility in the intelligence community’s hands. Regardless of whether Trump intends on reducing or minimizing U.S. involvement in global conflict, the U.S. will still need “eyes and ears” across the world in order to protect its national interests. That is exactly the intelligence community’s role.

The new director therefore faces great external and internal challenges. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will presumably experience special scrutiny from decision-makers, politicians, the public and the intelligence community itself. Thirteen years after its establishment – following the 9/11 Commission’s identification of intelligence agencies’ failures to coordinate activities and share information – many people now question the necessity of the ODNI. Some claim that the office has become a resource-consuming behemoth that only adds bureaucratic complexities to an already-too-bureaucratic community. Many also believe that the office has become a political tool rather than a “steering committee” for the intelligence community.

In light of this turbulent environment, the new director should focus on the following:

  • Improve relations with decision-makers by becoming a partner in strategic decision-making. Intelligence agencies traditionally serve as (ostensibly) objective reporters of reality. As Trump has already (bluntly) stated, he does not need yet another “newsfeed” – i.e., the presidential daily brief. What he needs is someone who will help him strategize. 
  • Improve interagency coordination. Nearly every commission tasked with examining the intelligence community has indicated that the main problems are a lack of coordination, problems in information flow and cross-agency rivalries. The community has an acute need for coherent leadership. The Director’s role is anything but redundant; however, it needs to be more efficient while focusing on coordination and the optimal use of its resources, without granting supremacy to one particular agency. The scope of the ODNI’s roles should therefore be narrower, allowing rotation and diversity in its leadership. 
  • Rebuild trust with the public. Public mistrust dates far back in history and has often been fueled by revelations of unlawful activities. Though counterintuitive, key to rebuilding this trust is the application of radical transparency. In our information age, the intelligence community should redefine the concept of “secrets” while still protecting what is really confidential. In order to regain the public’s trust, the intelligence community will have to transform the question “Could we reveal that?” into “Should we really hide that?” 
  • Promote global and national standards to prevent political cyberwarfare. Whether or not Moscow initiated the cyberattack against the Democratic Party, it is now apparent that countries should consider their elections to be vulnerable critical infrastructure. The intelligence community needs to stand at the forefront of protecting this basic element of democratic governance. This preventative stance will not only help establish a new global concept of deterrence but also a global mechanism for defending democracy.
  • Correctly identify new battlefields. A new (mainly digital) low-intensity global conflict is gaining momentum and threatening to redefine geopolitics. Old boundaries are diminishing and a new, more hybrid reality is forming. This new form of digital conflict is often performed under the public’s radar and involves a wide plethora of soft-power, non-kinetic measures including cyberattacks, information leaks, psychological warfare and economic cyberespionage. The intelligence community should therefore help decision-makers navigate and define this new terrain, thereby supporting new and updated strategies.

The world is becoming more fluid in its capabilities, identities and actions, while its domains are becoming increasingly convergent. The only way to successfully respond to this new reality is to imitate it. As such, what the above items have in common is a redefining of traditional divisions between the intelligence community and the public and decision-makers alike – as well as within itself. 

This will be the new director’s first task upon taking office.

Shay Hershkovitz, Ph.D., is chief strategy officer at Wikistrat, Inc. and a political science professor at Tel Aviv University specializing in intelligence studies. He is also a former IDF intelligence officer whose book, "Aman Comes To Light," deals with the history of the Israeli intelligence community.

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