The U.S. Intelligence Community Is Dangerously Unimaginative
Analysts try to predict the future, but are stuck in the past
by TOM ENGLEHARDT
They call themselves the U.S. “Intelligence Community,” or the I.C. If you include the office of the Director of National Intelligence — aka ODNI, which began in 2005 as a crew of 12 people, including its director and by 2008 had grown to a staff of 1,750 — there are 17 members.
It’s an alphabet soup of acronyms including the CIA, the NSA and the DIA. The I.C. spends something like $70 billion of your taxpayer dollars annually, mostly in secret, hires staggering numbers of private contractors from various warrior corporations to lend a hand, sucks up communications of every sort across the planet, runs a drone air force, monitors satellites galore, builds its agencies multi-billion-dollar headquarters and storage facilities and does all of this, ostensibly, to provide the president and the rest of the government with the best information imaginable on what’s happening in the world and what dangers the United States faces.
Since 9/11, expansion has been the name of the I.C.’s game, as the leading intelligence agencies gained ever more power, prestige and the big bucks, all while wrapping themselves in an unprecedented blanket of secrecy. Typically, in the final days of the Obama administration, the NSA received yet more leeway to share the warrantless data it scoops up worldwide — including from American citizens — with more members of the community.
And, oh yes, in the weeks leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration, several of those intelligence outfits found themselves in a knock-down, drag-out barroom brawl with our new tweeter-in-chief — who began threatening to downsize parts of the I.C. — over the possible Russian hacking of an American election and his relations with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.
In the process, they have received regular media plaudits for their crucial importance to all of us, our security and safety, along with tweeted curses from the then-president-elect.
Let me lay my own cards on the table here. Based on the relatively little we can know about the information the I.C. delivered to the president and his people in these years, I’ve never been particularly impressed with its work. Again, given what’s available to judge from, it seems as if, despite its size, reach, money and power, the I.C. gets caught “off-guard” by developments in our world with startling regularity.
We might think might think of it as something closer to an “un-intelligence machine.”
It’s always been my suspicion that, if a group of smart, out-of-the-box thinkers were let loose on purely open-source material, the U.S. government might actually end up with a far more accurate view of our world and how it works, not to speak of what dangers lie in store for us. There’s just one problem in saying such things.
In an era when the secrecy around the I.C. has only grown and those leaking information from it have been prosecuted with a fierceness unprecedented in our history, we out here in what passes for the world don’t have much of a way to judge the value of the “product” it produces. There is, however, one modest exception to this rule.
Every four years, before a newly elected president enters the Oval Office, the National Intelligence Council, or NIC — which bills itself as “the I.C.’s center for long-term strategic analysis” — produces just such a document. The NIC is largely staffed from the I.C. — evidently in significant measure from the CIA — and presents “senior policymakers with coordinated views of the entire Intelligence Community, including National Intelligence Estimates” and does other classified work of various sorts.
Still, proudly and with some fanfare, it makes public one lengthy document quadrennially for any of us to read. Until now, that report has gone by the name of Global Trends with a futuristic year attached. The previous one, NIC’s fifth, which it made public just before Barack Obama’s second term in office, was Global Trends 2030.
This one would have been the 2035 edition had the analysts not decided to drop that moniker for what NIC called fear of “false precision” — though projections of developments to 2035 were still part of the text. Instead, the sixth edition arrived as Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress.
“The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before,” is how it summarized the meaning of this anodyne phrase. “Whether promise or peril prevails will turn on the choices of humankind.”
According to the NIC, in producing such documents, its role is to identify “key drivers and developments likely to shape world events a couple of decades into the future” for the incoming president and his people. Think of Global Trends as another example of how the American world of intelligence expanded in these years.
Starting relatively modestly in 1997, the I.C. decided to go where no intelligence outfit had previously gone and plant its flag in the future. Chalk that up as a bold decision, since the future might be thought of as the most democratic, as well as least penetrable of time frames.
After all, any one of us is free to venture there any time we choose without either financing or staff. It’s also a place where you can’t embed spies, you can’t gather communications from across the planet, you can’t bug the phones or hack into the emails of world leaders, you can’t fly drones and you can’t take images with satellite to study or interpret.
Historically, until the NIC decided to make the future its property, it had largely been a space for visionaries and kooks, dreamers and sci-fi writers — people, in short, with a penchant for thinking outside the box. In these years, however, in the heartland of the world’s “sole superpower,” the urge to control and surveil everything grew to monumental proportions.
This led the I.C. directly into the future in the only way it knew how to do anything, monumentally.
As a result, the new Global Trends boasted about the size and reach of the operation that produced it. Its team “visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world from all walks of life,” NIC explained.
As its massive acknowledgements section made clear, along with all the unnamed officials and staff who did the basic work — and many people who they consulted but could not identify — the staff talked to everyone from a former prime minister and two foreign ministers to an ambassador and a sci-fi writer. This was not to mention “senior officials and strategists worldwide… hundreds of natural and social scientists, thought leaders, religious figures, business and industry representatives, diplomats, development experts, and women, youth and civil society organizations around the world,” the report added.
The NIC’s two-year intelligence voyage into a universe that, by definition, must remain unknown to us all, even made “extensive use of analytic simulations — employing teams of experts to represent key international actors — to explore the future trajectories for regions of the world, the international order, the security environment, and the global economy,” according to the study.
In other words, to produce this unclassified report on how, according to NIC Chairman Gregory Treverton, “the NIC is thinking about the future,” it mounted a major intelligence operation that — though no figures are offered — must have cost millions of dollars. In the hands of the I.C., the future like the present, it seems, is an endlessly expensive proposition.
A grim future offset by cheer
If you’re thinking about tossing your Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler novels into the trash bin of history and diving into the newest Global Trends, then I’ve done you an enormous favor and already read it for you.
And let me assure you that, unlike William Gibson’s “discovery” of cyberspace in his futuristic novel Neuromancer, the NIC’s document uncovers nothing in the future that someone hasn’t already clearly identified in the present and isn’t obvious to you and just about everyone else on the planet.
Perhaps Global Trends’ greatest achievement is to transform that future into a reading experience so mind-numbing that it was my own vale of tears. “The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships and information in a more rapid, integrated and adaptive mode than in generations past,” is one completely typical sentence.
Admittedly, every now and then you stumble across a genuinely interesting stat or fact that catches your attention — “one in every 112 persons in the world is a refugee, an internally displaced person or an asylum seeker” — and, on rare occasions, the odd thought stops you momentarily. Generally, though, the future as imagined by the wordsmiths of the I.C. is a slog, a kind of living nightmare of group-think.
Whatever quirky and original brains may be hidden in the depths of the I.C., on the basis of Global Trends you would have to conclude that its collective brain, the one we assume it offers to presidents and other officials, couldn’t be more mundane. Start with this, published on the eve of the Trumpian accession, it can’t seem to imagine anything truly new under the sun, including Trump himself — who goes unmentioned in this glimpse of our future.
Even as we watch our present world being upended daily, the authors of Global Trends couldn’t conceive of the genuine upending of much on this planet. Perhaps that helps explain why its leadership felt so caught off-guard and discombobulated by our new president.
In him, after all, the American future is already becoming the unimaginable American present, tweet by tweet. And let me here express a bit of sympathy for President Trump.
If Global Trends is typical of the kind of thinking and presentation that goes into the President’s Daily Brief from the I.C., then I’m not surprised that he chose to start skipping those sessions for almost anything else, including Fox and Friends and spitball fights with Meryl Streep and John Lewis.
As the I.C. imagines it, the near-future offers a relatively grim set of prospects, all transposed from obvious developments in our present moment. But each of them are almost mechanistically offset by a hopeful conclusion.
According to they study, terrorism will undoubtedly spread and worsen, but just before it gets better; inequality will increase in a distinctly 1 percent world as anti-globalist sentiments sweep the planet and “populism,” along with more authoritarian ways of thinking, will continue to spread along with isolationist sentiments in the West, but only before other trends take hold; the risk of interstate conflict will increase thanks to China and Russia, but that won’t devastate the world; governing will grow harder globally and technology more potentially disruptive, but hope lurks close at hand; and the pressures of climate change are likely to create a more tenuous planet, short on food and especially water and filled with the desperate and migrationally inclined, but is also likely to foster “a twenty-first-century set of common principles.”
In essence, in the view of the NIC, for every potentially lousy news trend of the present moment projected into the future, there’s invariably a saving grace — a sense that, as the report puts it, “the same trends generating near-term risks also can create opportunities for better outcomes over the long term.” In fact, by 2028, we could be “entering a new era of economic growth and prosperity,” according to one of its scenarios.
In truth, even the grimmest version of the I.C.’s future seems eerily mild, given the onrushing present — from a Trumpian presidency to the recently reported reality that eight billionaires now control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the planet’s population. Only a year ago, it took 62 billionaires to hit that mark.
According to the Engelhardt Intelligence Council, the real likelihood is that we’re already entering a future far more extreme than anything the NIC and its 2,500-plus outside experts can imagine. The Global Trends crew seems incapable of imagining futures in which some version of the present doesn’t rule all.
Despite the global wars of the last century that leveled significant parts of the planet, the arrival of climate change as history’s possible deal-breaker and the 9/11 attacks, disjunctures are simply not in their playbook. As a result, their idea of futuristic extremes couldn’t be milder.
In one of the report’s three scenarios, the analysts relieve even the surprise use of a nuclear weapon for the first time since Aug. 9, 1945 — in a 2028 confrontation between India and Pakistan — of most of its potential punch. The bomb goes off not over a major city, killing hundreds of thousands, but in a desert area.
And at what seems to be remarkably little cost, the shock of that single explosion miraculously brings a world of hostile powers, including the United States, China and Russia, together in a strikingly upbeat fashion. By 2028, it seems that Mr. Smith has indeed gone to Washington and so, in Global Trends, “President Smith” heartwarmingly shares a Nobel Peace Prize with China’s president for the “series of confidence-building measures and arms control agreements” that followed the nuclear incident.
I, of course, don’t have thousands of experts to consult in thinking about the future, but based on scientific work already on the record, I could still create a very different South Asian scenario, which wouldn’t exactly be a formula for uniting the planet behind a better security future. Just imagine that one of the “tactical” nuclear weapons the Pakistani military is already evidently beginning to store at its forward military bases was put to use in response to an Indian military challenge.
Imagine, then, that it triggered not world peace, but an ongoing nuclear exchange between the two powers, each with significant arsenals of such weaponry. The results in South Asia could be mind-boggling — up to 21 million direct deaths by one estimate. Scientists speculate, however, that the effects of such a nuclear war would not be restricted to the region, but would spark a nuclear-winter scenario globally, destroying crops across the planet and possibly leading to up to a billion deaths.
Living in an all-American world
Such grim futures, however, are not for the NIC. Think of them as American imperial optimists and dreamers only masquerading as realists. If you want proof of this, it’s easy enough to find in Global Trends.
Here, in fact, is the most curious aspect of that document, the I.C. members evidently can’t bear to look at the last 15 years of their own imperial history. Instead, in taking possession of the future, they simply leave the post-9/11 American past in a roadside ditch and move on.
In the future they imagine, much of that past is missing in action, including, of course, Trump. As a group, they must be Clintonistas.
At least I can imagine Hillary wonkishly making her way through their document, but The Donald? Don’t make me laugh.
Give them credit at least for accepting the obvious, that we will no longer be on a “unipolar planet” dominated by a single superpower, but in a world of “spheres of influence.” “For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War…” the study noted.
But you can search their document in vain for the word “decline.” Forget that they were putting together their report at the very moment that the first openly declinist candidate for president was wowing crowds — who sensed that their country and their own lives were on the downhill slope — with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Nor were they about to take striking aspects of present-day America and project them into a truly grim future. Take, for example, something that amused me greatly.
You can search Global Trends in vain for all but the most passing reference to the U.S. military. You know, the outfit that our recent presidents keep praising as the “finest fighting force” in world history.
Search their document top to bottom and you still won’t have the faintest idea that the U.S. military has been fighting ceaselessly in victory-less conflicts for the preceding 15 years and that its “war on terror” efforts have somehow only fueled the spread of terrorist movements, while leaving behind a series of failed or failing states across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. None of that is projected into the future, nor is the militarization of this country — or its police — even though the retired generals now populating the new Trump administration speak directly to this very point.
Or to pick another example, how about the fact that, in a world in which a single country — the very one to which the I.C. belongs — garrisons the planet with hundreds of military bases from Europe to Japan, Bahrain to Afghanistan, there is but a single futuristic mention of a military base, and it’s a Chinese one to be built on a Fijian Island deep in the Pacific. A running gag of Global Trends involved future newspaper headlines like this one from 2019, “China Buys Uninhabited Fijian Island To Build Military Base.”
What will happen to the present U.S. military framework for dominating the planet? You certainly won’t find out here.
But don’t think that the United States itself isn’t on the mind of those who produced this document. After all, among all the stresses of the decades to come, as the I.C.’s futurologists imagine them, there’s one key to positive national survival in 2035 and that’s what they call “resilience.” “[T]he very same trends heightening risks in the near term can enable better outcomes over the longer term if the proliferation of power and players builds resilience to manage greater disruptions and uncertainty,” they reported.
And which country is the most obviously resilient on Planet Earth? That’s the $100 — but not the 100 ruble or 100 yuan — question. So go ahead, guess — and if you don’t get the answer right, you’re not the reader I think you are.
Still, just in case you’re not sure, here’s how Global Trends sums the matter up:
“For example, by traditional measures of power, such as GDP, military spending, and population size, China’s share of global power is increasing. China, however, also exhibits several characteristics, such as a centralized government, political corruption and an economy overly reliant on investment and net exports for growth — which suggest vulnerability to future shocks.
“Alternatively, the United States exhibits many of the factors associated with resilience, including decentralized governance, a diversified economy, inclusive society, large land mass, biodiversity, secure energy supplies and global military power projection capabilities and alliances.”
So, if there’s one conclusion to be drawn from the NIC’s mighty two-year dive into possible futures on a planet we still garrison and that’s wracked by wars we’re still fighting, it might be summed up this way, “don’t be China, be us.”
Of course, no one should be surprised by such a conclusion, since you don’t rise in the government by contrarian thinking, but by going with the herd. This isn’t the sort of document you read expecting to be surprised, not when the nightmare of every bureaucracy is just that, the unexpected and unpredictable.
The Washington bubble is evidently too comfortable and the world far too frightening a place to imagine a fuller range of what might be coming at us. The spooks of the NIC may be living off the money our fear sends their way, but don’t kid yourself for a second, they’re afraid too or they could never produce a document like Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress.
As a portrait not of the future, but of the anxieties of American power in a world it can’t control, this document provides the rest of us with a vivid picture of the group of people least likely to offer us long-term security. The last laugh here belongs to Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin and other authors of their ilk.
If you want to free yourself to imagine the many possible futures that face us, futures that we will help create, then skip Global Trends. Instead, head for the kinds of books that might help you think afresh rather than bind to a world growing more dismal by the day.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear, as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.