Four Talking Points for Biden’s Address to the Intelligence Community

Tomorrow President Biden will visit the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and will address the workforce. The intelligence community (IC) will be looking to Biden to set the tone for a diverse, worldwide workforce who sees him as the “first customer” for their products and, for the military elements of the IC, as their commander-in-chief. They are also a tough crowd—many of them are trained to scrutinize the language of world leaders for clues on intent; others are the most highly skilled in the world at reading people’s flaws, weaknesses, and egos.

Biden can use this opportunity to assure IC professionals that he understands their work, that he values it, and to inspire them to step up to the next big challenge—the evolution in intelligence work represented by artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML). He can set the right tone for the intelligence community professionals if he makes sure to include the following points:

Point 1: “I want to hear your bad news.” The IC rarely brings a president good news. When intel succeeds, a potential crisis is averted early, or an adversary is stopped in its tracks, or the aspiring terrorist never manages to complete his or her mission. Most often—99 times out of 100—the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) landing on the president’s desk is full of problems. When I was an analyst and Senate intel staffer briefing everyone from cabinet members to senators on the intel take, I was often greeted with a sarcastic “What good news do you have for me today?” because they knew I had anything but. I would laugh, then hand them the bad news.

The president should tell his IC professionals that he wants to hear their gloomy forecasts, their warning pieces, and, yes, their efforts to “tell truth to power,” and that no one will be penalized for bringing bad news backed up by strong evidence and rigorous analysis. This more than anything will show the IC workforce that the president trusts them and understands what they do.

Point 2: “I won’t always do what you think I should do, but your work still makes a difference.” The IC does not make policy, does not recommend policy, and generally gets to express no opinion about the policies in place, other than to discuss adversaries’ reactions. It can be opaque to a junior analyst whether the president and his top advisers read the PDB they wrote, much less whether it made one bit of difference in a policy discussion. IC professionals, like everyone, are eager for indications that their hard work had an impact, but those signs are rare.

The president can remind the workforce that he values their insights, and that without them, policymaking is blind to the potential dangers of tomorrow.

Point 3: “Thank you for your hard work and sacrifice in Afghanistan.” Most of the IC was hired post-9/11, and the fight against terrorism has shaped the careers of the entire workforce. For those who have served in a war zone, under fire, those experiences were defining moments. I was one of hundreds who attended the memorial service for the seven CIA officers and employees killed at Khost in 2009, and though I knew none of them personally, I consoled the friends and colleagues who did and cried along with them. Those were only the most public images of sacrifice, however. There were many more.

Agree or disagree with the president’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan, it was his decision to make, and the IC will salute and do its best to keep the country safe from any threats that may emerge again from that corner of the world. But tomorrow, the president would do well to say the name “Jawbreaker” and to refer to the helicopter sitting in the CIA parking lot, tail number 91101, which carried CIA officers into Afghanistan in late September 2001, as the sharpest point on the tip of the spear. He would do well to cite the number of intelligence officers from across the community who have served there since, and he would do well to comment on the strength of their families and the depth of the commitment to national security that their sacrifice represents.

Finally, point 4: “Our security depends on you, once again, taking on a momentous challenge: we must leap ahead of our adversaries in a tech race that is already well underway.” This is a private, internal war the IC must fight. It’s a struggle not against a foreign force, but against tradition, process, and even a little snobbish ego. Spy work today is just as much about computing power as it is about manpower. While the IC’s crown jewels will always be the exquisite signals intelligence or the perfectly placed asset, the IC needs to expand its own definition of intelligence and embrace a new set of tools that will let it exploit both the stolen secrets and those hiding in plain sight.

The president should say that the IC’s most fundamental asset is its ability to think, to discover, and to problem-solve. The people of the United States depend on their IC not for the easy things, but for the hardest of the hard. They ask IC professionals to see around that next corner, that next curve, that next horizon; they ask them to do it while lives are on the line; and they ask them to do it to the highest standards of ethics and U.S. ideals. Today, that next horizon is making the most out of advances in AI/ML, cloud computing, virtual reality, and remote sensing. The visionaries in the IC will have to grab the best tech that U.S. industry has to offer and outrun China, Russia, and all other comers. The next three to five years are the IC’s moonshot—President Biden can use this opportunity to look back for a moment, then inspire the way ahead.

Emily Harding is deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Emily Harding
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, International Security Program