At Aspen Security Forum, intel community tackles information age |

At Aspen Security Forum, intel community tackles information age

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times

How to keep up with the largest number of terrorists ever confronting the United States, coupled with a distinctive new way to gather intelligence, are two of the major challenges confronting the country’s intelligence agencies today.

That was the word Friday from leaders of three of those agencies who spoke at a session of the Aspen Security Forum titled “A Word from the Intelligence Community.”

“There are more terrorist bad actors coming at us (now) than there has ever been in my career,” said Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “(That’s) my biggest concern.”

However, thanks to significant progress made in dismantling the leadership core of al-Qaida in recent years, the ability of those terrorists and groups to conduct large-scale attacks against the U.S. has diminished, he said.

As an example, he brought up the killing of Abu Khalil al-Sudani, a top al-Qaida commander, in a July 11 U.S. airstrike that was announced by the Pentagon on Friday. Rasmussen said al-Sudani, described by the Pentagon as head of al-Qaida’s suicide and explosive operations, was one of the terrorist organization’s few remaining core members.

“We’ve seen a steady march of the decline of their ability to attack us,” he said. “None of the terrorist actors we are confronting have the ability to carry out these large-scale attacks.”

Session moderator Brian Ross, ABC News chief investigative correspondent, asked the panel if the intelligence community has grown too large since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“No one’s surprised that we all say ‘no,’” said David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA. “There’s more instability now than in the last several decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

Cohen said it’s not only important to recognize “the wolf at the door” represented by the likes of the Islamic State group, China and the situation in Yemen, but also future threats such as “what does this guy in North Korea think?”

“The threats since 9/11 have not tapered off,” Cohen said. “There are not a lot of people running around the CIA looking for something to do.”

With an eye on those future threats, Cohen said the CIA is in the midst of the most significant strategic reorganization in the history of the agency. One of the major components of that reorganization is the establishment of a Digital Directorate, where analysts will use social media and online sources to try to explain things that have already happened and look into the future at threats on the horizon, he said.

Rasmussen said analysts used to look at the most sensitive, secret information first and foremost and often were left staring at nothing. Now, analysts are opening their minds to the fact that a trove of public information is often available, he said.

“What keeps me up at night is (the question), ‘Are we adapting fast enough to this changing environment?’” Rasmussen said.

Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which analyzes visual imagery, said he doesn’t worry about the technology like Rasmussen does.

“I worry much more about the culture of my agency,” he said. “If we’re not careful, we will suppress and cause people to leave” who don’t want to work in an insular environment.

Ross asked if recruiting that new kind of analyst might run the risk of creating “a bunch of new Ed Snowdens.”

Cardillo acknowledged that the human factor is the weakest link in intelligence gathering. But both Cardillo and Cohen said combating that problem requires a better conversation between leaders and employees of those agencies about why they do what they do.

“It absolutely matters to us that people understand what we do and what we don’t do,” Cohen said. “We are absolutely committed to sticking to the law.”