Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an affiliated faculty member of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Before coming to Stanford, she was professor of public policy at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. National Journal featured Zegart as one of the ten most influential experts in intelligence reform. Her research includes two award-winning books—Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She served on the National Academies of Science Panel to Improve Intelligence Analysis and currently serves on the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association Advisory Board and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-terrorism and Community Police Advisory Board. She received an AB in East Asian studies from Harvard and an MA and PhD in political science from Stanford.

The New Year is always a time for making lists, and presidential inaugurations crank the Beltway list-making machine into overdrive. We’ve got prediction listschallenge lists, and even foreign-policy-problems-the-president-could-solve-right-now lists. The thing is, the most serious foreign policy challenges are often unlisted surprises.

In 1995, President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive that demanded intelligence priorities be placed into tiers. They were, and Afghanistan was near the bottom. In 2000, a self-appointed bipartisan Commission on America’s National Interests tried a similar drill. They ended up assigning counterterrorism and democracy promotion outside the Western hemisphere as second- and third-tier interests. In 2011, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”

Why do these lists have such an abysmal track record? Because they tend to focus on hot spots and bad guys — the places and adversaries that make headlines rather than the underlying forces that ignite and inflame conflict. Instead of lists of challenges, the Obama administration should think much more about drivers of challenges, understanding better the forces that are likely to amplify and multiply security threats now and over the longer-term. Think of these drivers as “threat multipliers.” They don’t make the threats. They make the threats more dangerous, numerous, and intractable. In my view, three threat multipliers are critical and deserve much more systematic thought in Obama’s second term: institutional mismatch, climate change, and technology.

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Eyes on Spies

Ten years after 9/11, the least reformed part of America’s intelligence system is not the CIA or the FBI, but Congress. The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked major efforts to transform executive branch intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the FBI. These include the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the most sweeping intelligence restructuring since the establishment of the CIA in 1947; the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which combined twenty-two agencies and two hundred thousand employees to provide “one face at the border”; dramatic initiatives to transform the FBI from a law enforcement to a domestic intelligence agency; and the proliferation of more than seventy regional, state, and local terrorist fusion centers to integrate terrorist-threat reporting across the country.

Although reforms have generated some major successes—including the killing of Osama bin Laden this year—not all intelligence improvement efforts have actually produced improvements. Some reforms have failed. Many have not gone far enough or fast enough. Others have proven counterproductive, creating more red tape and fatigue than results. Recent terrorist plots, including the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber, and the May 2010 Times Square car bomb plot, remind us all too well that serious weaknesses remain in the American intelligence system.

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Al Qaeda is down, not out

Talk of strategically defeating Al Qaeda is all the rage in theWhite House these days. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the “D-word” in July. President Obama declared in his new counter-terrorism strategy, “We can say with growing confidence… that we have put Al Qaeda on the path to defeat.” Compared to the woeful state of the economy, terrorism has become the administration’s feel-good story of the year.

“Defeat” is a big word. It is also dangerously misleading. Yes, the United States has made great strides in the last decade to harden targets, improve intelligence and degrade the capabilities of violent Islamist extremists. Osama bin Laden’s death was a major accomplishment. But the fight is nowhere close to being won, and America’s most perilous times may lie ahead. Three reasons explain why.

The first is that strategically defeating Al Qaeda is not nearly as important as it sounds. After 9/11, Al Qaeda morphed into a more complicated, decentralized and elusive threat consisting of three elements: core Al Qaeda; affiliates or franchise groups operating in places like Yemen and Somalia with loose ties to the core group; and homegrown terrorists inspired by violent extremism, often through the Internet in the comfort of their own living rooms.

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Congress: A Pre-9/11 State of Mind

Ten years after 9/11, the least reformed part of America’s intelligence system is not the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but the United States Congress. The September 11th terrorist attacks sparked major efforts to transform executive branch intelligence agencies. These include the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the most sweeping intelligence restructuring since the establishment of the CIA in 1947; the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which combined twenty-two agencies and two-hundred thousand employees to provide "one face at the border;" dramatic initiatives to transform the FBI from a law enforcement to domestic intelligence agency; and the proliferation of more than seventy regional, state, and local terrorist fusion centers to integrate terrorist threat reporting across the country.

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