How has the US Intelligence Community evolved in the modern international security environment?

Essay 2014 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security


Table Of Contents






Major historical developments continued to shape the way the United States Intelligence Community (IC) practices intelligence since its creation under the authority of the National Security Act of 1947. The first part of the essay explores historical events and themes that influenced the way intelligence agencies shared information (or more precisely the lack of it) in a chronological and historical order to its present context. The second part examines the role of Congress in overseeing the IC and its activities and how this role has evolved over the years amid challenges such as its relationship with the Executive Branch of U.S. Government, budget oversight and the classified nature of highly sensitive information. The essay concludes that while much-needed changes have been adopted by the IC to improve its activities and operations since 11 September 2001, time will tell whether such changes have improved the ability of intelligence to function as an effective and cohesive unit.


The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War since the 1990’s have not enhanced prospects for world peace according to Mearsheimer.[1] The post-Cold War security environment is characterized by an expanded menu of threats that includes both traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Traditional threats such as inter-state military conflicts, rogue regimes and internal socio-political and economic chaos that may lead to the crumbling of states remain relevant in the modern international security context.[2] However, the interconnectedness of states through an increasingly networked international environment has witnessed the emergence of a wide spectrum of non-conventional asymmetrical threats that continued to shape the international security landscape.[3] The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mass displacements of populations, organized crime, cyber-crime, global warming and international terrorism have all added to a growing list of security concerns that influence states’ policy and intelligence activities.[4] As has been observed over recent years, non-traditional threats such as the terrorist attacks on United States home soil (9/11),[5] the terrorist bombing in Mumbai, India[6] and the 2005 London bombings in the United Kingdom[7] are examples that non-traditional threats such as terrorism pose more of a security challenge than traditional ones. The shift in the threat environment required a reprioritization of intelligence resources, capabilities and means towards a more innovative and integrated orientation to adequately counter such threats.[8] An aspect of intelligence that has been identified as a key component in combating security threats such as international terrorism lies within the ability of intelligence agencies to transcend organizational boundaries to willingly exchange information.[9] An excursion into history will provide an understanding of how information sharing as an intelligence functional imperative in its current highly complex existence has evolved from the aftermath of World War II.

Zegart argues that the period which marked the beginning of the Cold War in 1945 and the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 largely dominated the thinking of the U.S. Intelligence Community and became the primary impetus in shaping the strategic focus of U.S. foreign policy.[10] The Cold War period also saw consistent attempts by previous U.S. Governments to transform, reconfigure and reorganize the IC after recommendations by a number of investigative committees (the Pike Committee, the Church Committee, the Rockefeller Commission) into intelligence failures unanimously agreed such changes were needed.[11] According to Burns, institutional rivalry was identified as the significant hurdle to sharing information between intelligence organizations particularly in the signals intelligence (SIGNIT) domain under the tenure of President Harry Truman during the Cold War.[12] The lack of warning of the imminent invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950 strikingly resembled SIGINT deficiencies that failed to predict the Japanese aerial assault on Pearl Harbour in 1941.[13] Matters were further compounded when President Truman in an attempt to improve SIGNT capabilities and warning systems created two agencies with overlapping SIGNIT functions, the Armed Service Agency (ASA) and the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA).[14] The outcome in creating two agencies of similar functions is all too predictable and familiar. The Brownell Committee which was set up to investigate why the AFSA failed to forewarn of an impending North Korean invasion revealed in its report that fierce inter-organizational competition, protection of agency autonomies and influence blunted any meaningful efforts towards information sharing.[15] The emergence of new intelligence organizations on the horizon did not sufficiently resolve the information sharing debate either.

Another development that affected information sharing within the IC during the Cold War was the creation of new intelligence organizations such as the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 1960 and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 1961.[16] All of which came into existence partly for the purpose of developing a more advanced intelligence capability and partly to quell inter-agency friction and bridge information sharing gaps.[17] Despite such laudable intentions, change does not necessarily translate to success. The proliferation of new organizations failed to address the information sharing deficit between agencies. If anything, according to Zegart, it further widened the gulf of intelligence sharing which led to an ineffectual, dysfunctional and incoherent IC.[18] Best claims that the organizational policies and information security procedures of the NSA, NRO and the DIA pertaining to intelligence sharing severely limited the ability of other agencies within the IC to access information these organizations collected.[19]

Furthermore, the non-collaboration of intelligence agencies in exchanging knowledge was a pattern that also persisted through the tenures of Presidents John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.[20] Both also attempted to institute changes to address a number of issues pertaining to intelligence including information sharing shortcomings amongst intelligence agencies that plagued the IC. The remaining years of the Cold War, according to Jones, were characterized by a number of investigative panels commissioned to look into the performance of the IC.[21] In an effort to address this issue, Presidents and Congress through the signing of executive orders and multiple legislative bills sought to enhance the authority of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), a position created under the National Security Act of 1947, over a disparate and diverse number of intelligence agencies within the IC.[22] While sound in theory, in practice, the DCI lacked absolute authority to compel cooperation from various intelligence organizations under his command due to, amongst other reasons, organizational resistance and apathy to reform. Jones asserts that despite the desire to implement institutional change such efforts remained frustratingly fruitless.[23] The decentralization of intelligence continued through the Cold War period until the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 provided the catalyst for a drastically radical overhaul of the U.S. Intelligence Community since its inception.[24]


[1] John J. Mearsheimer, ‘The False Promise of International Institutions’, President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, 34-35.

[2] Mark M. Lowenthal, ‘Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy’, Sage Publications Limited, 340-341.

[3] Nirmala Joshi, ‘Responses to Non-Traditional Threats and Challenges’, 81.

[4] Sandy Gordon, ‘Intelligence and Policy in the New Strategic Environment’, 55-56.

[5] David Omand, ‘Securing the State’, Columbia University Press, New York, 16.

[6] Naeem Ahmad, ‘Peace-Building in South Asia: A Need for Third Party Mediation’, Pakistan Vision Vol. 13 No. 2, 185.

[7] Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005, TSO, 2006, pp. 1-38, Accessed 16 October 2014, 2, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228837/1087.pdf

[8] Amy B. Zegart, ‘September 11 and the Adaptation Failures of U.S. Intelligence Agencies’, President and Fellows Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 81.

[9] Luis Garicano & Richard A. Posner, ‘Intelligence Failures: An Organizational Economics Perspective’, Journal of Economics Perspective, 152-153.

[10] Amy B. Zegart, ‘September 11 and the Adaptation Failures of U.S. Intelligence Agencies’ The President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 79-80.

[11] Thomas L. Burns, ‘The Origins of the National Security Agency 1940-1952’, Centre for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 59.

[12] Ibid, 59.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 97-98.

[16] Richard A. Best Jr, Intelligence Community Reorganization: Potential Effects on DOD Intelligence Agencies’, Congressional Research Service, 2.

[17] Ibid, 2.

[18] Amy B. Zegart, ‘September 11 and the Adaptation Failures of U.S. Intelligence Agencies’, President and Fellows Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 78-79.

[19] Richard A. Best Jr, Intelligence Community Reorganization: Potential Effects on DOD Intelligence Agencies’, Congressional Research Service, 10.

[20] Richard A. Best Jr, ‘Proposals for Intelligence Reorganization: 1949-2004’, Congressional Research Service, 14.

[21] Daniel B. Jones, ‘Why Efforts to Centralize the US Intelligence Community Fail’, Air University Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 13-14.

[22] Gordon Nathan Lederman, ‘Restructuring the Intelligence Community’, Hoover Press, 70-71.

[23] Ibid, 71.

[24] Patrick C. Neary, ‘Intelligence Reform 2001-2009: Requiscat in Pace?’ Studies in Intelligence Vol. 54 No. 1, 1.


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Title: How has the US Intelligence Community evolved in the modern international security environment?