The 10th Annual Intelligence and National Security Summit, cohosted by INSA and AFCEA kicked off today with key Intelligence Community leaders taking the stage to share thoughts on Ukraine, Russia, China, AI, and Section 702. The conference’s plenary panel was moderated by CBS Reporter Olivia Gazis, and dove into the major issues facing the IC in 2023.
The United States IC maintains its competitive edge because, as CIA Deputy Director David Cohen explained, “there’s a unity of effort in the IC…that gives the U.S. an advantage. We’re better than our adversaries with intelligence.” NSA Deputy Director George Barnes agreed, noting that compared to other countries, the U.S. IC is smaller in number, operates under authorities that are open and honest, and under the good of the people and laws. “That makes the IC job harder, but it makes us better,” he said
Ukraine and Threat of Russia
Discussion focused initially on Ukraine and Russia. DIA Chief of Staff John Kirchhofer noted that while Ukraine didn’t gain exactly what they wanted at the end of the NATO Summit, success right now for Ukraine is a multi-year commitment of munitions and support from the West. The support shown to-date, as well as future plans shows that the U.S. is in it for the long haul, which ultimately helps Russia rethink their plans. Kirchhofer said that while we can’t predict the tipping point for Russia, attrition for Russia is real.
Cohen weighed in on the challenge of understanding Vladimir Putin’s thinking, saying that “We need to recognize that Putin doesn’t view Ukraine as a separate country – just a part of Russia…He seems to see his role in history as making this move.” However, Cohen noted that Putin’s desire to bring Ukraine into Russia has run up against deep Ukrainian resistance. Cohen also explained a key CIA recruiting effort. He shared that while the CIA is always recruiting, right now, they’re interested in recruiting “Russians with a conscience.” Cohen noted that they released a video on Russian platform, Telegram. The intent of the video was to appeal to the Russian conscience, and offering a secure way for viewers to contact the CIA. The video has gotten a lot of views. Cohen said they’ve made it clear that “CIA is open for business.”
Barnes added thoughts on the preparation that the U.S. has done in anticipation of cyber attacks. He shared that it was clear that the Russian government thought the initial stages of their ground and cyber attack would have a very different result. He noted that the NSA is watching the Russian calculus very closely, in order to stay the current course or pivot.
Barnes said that the U.S. is “watching direct government in Russia and their connected assets, and we will hold them accountable if they cross the line.” The cyber threat level has held steady with Russia, as they can’t afford to face U.S. retribution.
FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate agreed, saying “The threat has been in our face for a long time now. We need to stay focused and working together.”
Overhead imagery has played a key role in Russia’s war against Ukraine. NGA Deputy Director Tonya Wilkerson said that “we have seen a heightened demand for GEOINT materials…commercial imagery being sharable has been helpful to give all a witness to what’s happening on the ground.” Wilkerson said they have partnered with the NRO to have access to commercial imagery. NRO Principal Deputy Director Dr. Troy Meink said that the “IC has shifted in the Ukraine War to better sharing information. NRO has increased partnerships with commercial companies.” He noted that this shift has been a huge success across the IC, and they have made huge progress.”
Barnes noted that the IC tailors its approach to each situation. He noted that the path taken with Ukraine was done to get ahead of Russia. Disinformation and manipulation are key Russian moves, so the IC “worked together as a community with the National Security Council to control what’s released in a timely manner.” Barnes explained that this is not a stamp of approval on what will always happen for future conflicts.
The link between Russia and China is always a factor in the conversation. Cohen shared that there’s no question that China is watching closely as the battle unfolds in Russia. Cohen said, “While the Russia-China relationship is strong, the recent rebellion could show Russia as less reliable to China.”
Kirchhofer explained the importance of establishing different intelligence streams with China, based on building trust. He noted that it helps strengthen our other intelligence reports gathered, clarifying the timeline on any Taiwan invasion.
Abbate shared that the FBI is working in partnership with the DoD in the ongoing investigation on the technology of the Chinese spy balloon from earlier this year.
Following the Chinese email hack announced this week, Barnes said that “This is another example of what is happening around us everyday. China is determined.” He said that NSA is doubling down on cyber strategy.
Meink shared that we are constantly being bombarded by China and Russia with different cyber attempts. He said the NRO continues to collaborate with NSA to defend. Meink warned that “without continued investment and diligence, we won’t stay in the same strong place we’re in now.”
The AI Race
Wilkerson said that while China does have an increased investment in AI, the U.S. is actively leveraging AI to label data to train algorithms. Barnes noted that a key piece of the AI conversation is the ability to harness it for good and keep it from the bad. Navigating that path has not been void of struggle. It’s also important to understand how adversaries are leveraging AI, and how they might use it against the U.S.
The NRO has made a major push in the last five years to increase their investment into AI/ML Meink said. The products available on the commercial side have been particularly helpful, and then research and development efforts help to fill in the gaps. But with the increase in data coming, Wilkerson pointed out that “AI tools are an enabler and allows us to scale.”
Cohen said the CIA looks “at AI as a piece of a broader set of issues that we’re focused on – the revolution of technology.” He noted that they have made some structural adjustments in the Agency to spend on technology, specifically creating mission centers. CIA’s transnational technology mission center focuses on what adversaries are doing with advanced technologies. Cohen said that they have a focus on data collection, as well as recruiting. It’s important to have the right people working the issues. The ongoing battle is about keeping ahead.
Forefront on everyone’s minds at the end of the session was the House Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers were criticizing the Section 702 program. Abbate clarified that the FBI has never been legally required to obtain a warrant for Section 702. However, Abbate said, “beyond that, the delay would negate and undermine the effectiveness of the tool.” He noted that the FBI has been able to detect threats and prevent harm from occurring in the past, and the delay from a warrant that’s not legally required would prevent the IC’s ability to protect people and infrastructure.
Barnes emphasized education around IC technology and capabilities is important. He said that we “need to demystify what’s actually done in Section 702. The intention is to look for people who could be doing us harm.”
Bottom line? Cohen said that Section 702 has been successful in the past, and “it’s one part of the whole suite of national security tools.”