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U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats released the 2019 National Intelligence Strategy in late January. ASU Now spoke with Nadya Bliss, director of Arizona State University's Global Security Initiative, about the strategy, its most important points and how universities and researchers can develop solutions.
Question: What is the National Intelligence Strategy, and why is it important?
Answer: First, it’s important to understand who is producing the National Intelligence Strategy. It is produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which leads the country’s intelligence community (IC) and coordinates the work of the IC’s component organizations — like the CIA and NSA.
The National Intelligence Strategy is released every four years and serves two primary purposes: It sets strategic direction for the intelligence community and provides an overview of the threat landscape for citizens and those working with the intelligence community.
The IC is a sprawling enterprise composed of 17 organizations, some of which are independent like the CIA and others that sit under Cabinet-level departments like the Department of Defense. The National Intelligence Strategy serves as a roadmap for these organizations and the people working on intelligence issues every day, highlighting priority threats, outlining emerging capabilities and providing a sense of what the IC is focusing on and how it is evolving.
It is a key document for anyone interested in national security. At ASU, we focus on use-inspired research. To do that well in the defense and national security sectors, we need to understand what issues, technology and challenges organizations like the IC are focusing on, and this document helps us do that.
Q: From your perspective, what are the most important takeaways from the document?
A: Three things stand out to me. The first is how seriously the intelligence community takes our privacy and civil liberties. The strategy lists safeguarding privacy and civil liberties as one of the IC’s seven enterprise objectives. Trust is at the core of everything the IC does, and without the trust of citizens, of assets, of partners, the IC will be less effective. We live in an environment now where a lot of our privacy is eroded. Sometimes people fear that the intelligence community abuses privacy vulnerabilities, but I think the IC is actually more responsible with our privacy than private industry.
The second thing that stands out to me is how prevalent computing technology and computing research and development is throughout the document, both as areas where we are vulnerable as a nation and as areas of opportunity. Some examples from the document that are relevant to research currently being done at ASU are cyberthreats, information manipulation and discussions of how artificial intelligence, automation and high-performance computing can be used in positive and negative ways.
The third takeaway for me is how access to new technologies has expanded the threat landscape. Much of the innovation in the U.S. is done by the private sector, and this has democratized access in some ways, giving current and potential adversaries new tools to work with.
Q: What role can researchers play in addressing these threats?
A: There’s tremendous research capability that can be leveraged to address some of the emerging threats. In the areas of cybersecurity, there are researchers here at ASU building systems that can protect themselves from attacks, that automatically identify malicious code and fix it.
There also are technologies being developed that can recognize deepfakes in videos, detect and flag them and make sure they don’t spread through various communication channels.
Online influence is an area with extensive research potential. There are technologies that can track and identify how information spreads online, and techniques to detect malicious actors and how that information is affecting opinions. This research can range in fields from computer science to psychology to narrative framing.
Q: How is ASU’s Global Security Initiative positioned to take on complex global challenges like these?
A: In his testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats listed cybersecurity, online influence operations and advances in artificial intelligence as key concerns, among others. GSI has been working on these issues for years, and it is good to see that our priorities match those of the IC. We strive to understand the mission landscape and anticipate needs, and this document has confirmed that we are focusing on the right things.
Academia has an important role in supporting the intelligence community. We are hubs of creativity, have incredible subject-matter expertise across a wide range of disciplines and are able to have a longer-term view of research than most private-sector counterparts. Here at GSI for example, we bring together interdisciplinary teams of researchers to take on pressing cybersecurity challenges and to tackle influence operations.