Increasing complexity of U.S. national intelligence

The Increasing Complexity of U.S. National Intelligence

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Michael P. Dempsey, the 2017–2019 National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the increasing complexity of U.S. national intelligence in enhancing American security.

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Michael Dempsey

2017–2019 National Intelligence Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Acting Director, Office of the Director of National Intelligence


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We’re delighted to have Michael Dempsey with us to talk about the increasing complexity of U.S. national intelligence. He is the 2017 to 2019 national intelligence fellow here at CFR. Previously, Mr. Dempsey served as the acting director of national intelligence. From 2014 to 2017, he was the deputy director of national intelligence and President Obama’s primary intelligence briefer. In this role, he also regularly represented the intelligence community at National Security Council, Principal, and Deputy Committee meetings. Additionally, he was charged with leading the effort to integrate the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community. He began his career in the Central Intelligence Agency in 1990, and served in a number of management and analytical positions there. And prior to joining the CIA, he served for four years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

Mike—thank you very much for being with us today. We are in a world of increasing global tensions that have direct security implications for the United States. Can you start us off by talking about what you are most worried about from your vantage point?

DEMPSEY: OK. Thanks, Irina. Thanks, everybody, for joining on this Halloween afternoon. There’s nothing scarier than talking about national security. (Laughs.)

So let me start. I’ll just say briefly about—I want to highlight why I think it’s such a complicated time for the national security community, the intelligence community as well, and indeed the country.

So, first, I think we have as fluid and complex a set of national security challenges than I’ve seen in the past decade or so. I rank our challenges into four broad tiers. You can—and we can have debate about which category these should fall into, and in some cases it feels like it changes within the—within a week.

So the first broad tier of challenges or threats, in my mind, includes terrorism and the threat to the homeland, which I don’t think has gone away, unfortunately; the war in Syria; and our peer relationships—and our relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia—and Saudi Arabia I would not have had in this category until the events of the last month—and then our relationship with our two largest peer military competitors, China and Russia.

I think the second tier is made up of North Korea issues, the whole basket of those. And a year ago I would have had that as a tier one threat. I think it’s dialed back for the near term, though I am under no illusion that that’s resolved. I would put the wars in Afghanistan and Yemen and a series of hotspots that you could throw a dart at a map and come up with. But I would include Venezuela, southern Iraq, and Libya as three.

I think the third tier includes a series of transnational issues such as the opioid crisis. You know, keep in mind we had 72,000 deaths from opioid abuse last year, which is up sevenfold since 1999. Climate change, the threat of global pandemics. I was at the White House, as Irina mentioned, during the Obama administration, so I was there for the Ebola crisis. And I would put global population displacement as one—in this category as well. I’d also include here the strains in the Western alliance, the future of the global trade agenda, the potentially precarious health of the global economy, particularly countries such as Italy and some emerging market economies.

And then just as an aside, on population displacement, that’s an issue that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written a lot about it. But, you know, for—you may not realize this, but across the globe we now have nearly seventy million people displaced from their homes. That’s the largest number since World War II and roughly the size of the entire United Kingdom, and we keep breaking that record every year. And also keep in mind that the average displaced person is now displaced for about a decade, so I think we’re at risk of creating a lost generation, particularly in places such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Myanmar.

And then a fourth broad bin of challenges includes a series of emerging technological challenges that in my view we aren’t fully prepared for. And that’s the full basket from artificial intelligences to—artificial intelligence to advances in synthetic biology, what’s happening in the cyber domain, and then development of drone and autonomous weapons. And so, again, recall that a decade ago the United States was the only country operating armed drones over Iraq and Syria. Today there are more than a dozen countries doing so, along with at least two non-state actors. And there are also twenty-three countries that have military drone programs worldwide and a dozen that are researching autonomous weapons. So technologically I think there is a lot to be concerned about.

You know, overall, in those four categories, I think what you’re left with is that it’s a really complex operating environment for national security decision-makers. As Irina mentioned, I served in the last three administrations. I was on the Bush forty-three NSC staff. I was the director for the Western Hemisphere. I was deputy DNI for the last two and a half years of the Obama administration. And then I was acting DNI in the first months of the Trump administration. And I tell you, I don’t think the national security situation’s getting any easier.

So that’s the broad category of challenges. A second thread that I would just touch on briefly is how that technological change that I mentioned is going to alter how we think about national security norms, how we spend money defending ourselves, and even who the national security agencies hire. And I’m happy to talk about hiring as we go through this. But consider, is it really wise to build massive aircraft carriers today, or even, as China is doing, build island atolls in the South China Sea, if increasingly precise long-range missiles or even drones can attack them? We’re also spending a lot of time talking about the INF—the INF Treaty in recent months. But what are the agreed-upon norms, I would ask you, that govern countries’ activities in the cyber domain. What exactly is an act of war in cyber operations?

And in terms of skills it’s clear that, you know, the IC and national security agents are going to be increasingly interested in harder foreign languages, artificial intelligence, and cyber expertise. And what’s a challenge for us is that all of those skills are in demand in the private sector. So in terms of the intelligence community specifically, just consider the profound implications of technological change on the way we collect and disseminate information. Just think, again, about this: How easy is it to operate undercover overseas in an age of biometrics? And then another point on technology I just mentioned is that I also think we have critically important work to do, still, to improve the trust between our technology companies, particularly Silicon Valley, and our critical national security agencies.

And then a final point I’ll make is that I think it’s increasingly complex to work on national security because of the state of our domestic political environment, which is intense and polarized, and at times places key national security agencies in very difficult situations. I’m not political and I’m not going to talk about—(laughs)—domestic politics. And I’m not going to bash the White House or either political party. Sorry to disappoint if you’re hoping for that. (Laughs.) But it seem to me sitting here that the level of polarization and partisan infighting in Washington does need to be dialed back, especially if—as I suspect—America’s going to face at least one national security crisis in the next year. I fear that the Trump administration’s time in the barrel is likely coming. Every administration face one eventually. And when it does come, we all need to be rowing together.

So before I turn it over to questions, I’ll leave you with this thought on the intelligence community specifically: The U.S. intelligence community has sixteen agencies and roughly one hundred thousand employees, with a budget that was announced today of $81 billion. That’s the national programs and the military combined. And everyone works as closely together as they can to protect America and advance our interests overseas. It’s full of patriotic people who work hard every day in some of the most dangerous parts of the globe, frequently without any public recognition. But it’s a great place to work. And I would encourage each of you to at least consider working for the federal government or the intel community as you begin your career planning process.

OK. Happy to chat about anything you want to talk about.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic, Mike. Thank you very much. Let’s open it up to questions. And, you know, you can also ask about a career in the intelligence community. So let’s open it up.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And our first question comes from Indiana University.

Q: Hi, there. My name is Nathan Rider (sp). I’m at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

I wanted to ask, from your experience with the CIA in the 1990s, compared to your time as deputy DNI and DNI in 2017, can you say with confidence that the U.S. intel community has been better integrated between agencies to prevent the same intelligence, discounting or dismissing, sharing mistakes that led to 9/11?

DEMPSEY: It’s a great question. Go Hoosiers.

Q: Woo!

DEMPSEY: So my whole—that was the whole part of my last job was to integrate the community. Look, I’d say that from 1990 when I joined, it was literally sixteen agencies, cooperating where they could, largely based on personality and relationships that were built up. It wasn’t—there wasn’t as much of a mandate to cooperate as there is now. I mean, just think back, though—let me say this, before I go on to where I think we are today. The U.S. military wasn’t exactly a joint force before Goldwater-Nichols. (Laughs.) So I think that what happened with the creation of ODNI post-9/11 was that it became much more of a core part of our makeup to cooperate across the sixteen agencies.

So, yeah, I think it is much better. I think it’s better in terms of sharing information. It’s better in terms of aligning resources. There’s probably still work to do. When I’ve been asked this question by Congress I usually say that I think we’re probably, from 9/11 to where we are today, you know, in the B-plus, B category, more work left to be done. I think joint duty, where agency officers—you know, different agency officers serve within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or agencies outside of their own, just as the military did, is a big—a big impetus to cooperating more.

So, yeah, I think it’s better. And probably better than most of us like to—you know, like to pat ourselves on the back. But probably better than most give us credit for, but not as good as we need to be.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Texas.

Q: Sir, given your expertise, how are—how are the current threats and issues associated or to what extent are they associated with immigration? So, given the extent to which immigrants can also potentially serve as the part of the security or the armed forces in the United States.

DEMPSEY: Not sure I heard all of that. It was a little muffled. But so, look, the intelligence community specifically, obviously, has a role in screening people that come into the country. We don’t have a big role in terms of the—you know, obviously we’re focused more overseas on international threats. So we don’t spend a lot of time or have the authority to do much domestically. You know, I will say that we benefit from having a workforce that looks like all of America. So we have many, you know, first-, second-generation immigrants from all over the world in our intelligence community workforce that we’re quite—that we absolutely require, as you can imagine, for language skills and for understanding of different parts of the world. So I think that’s where I would leave it. I don’t—you know, we don’t focus on domestic issues. Primarily we do screen for concrete evidence of any connection to terrorist threat. But it is not an issue that we are the primary agencies for.

Q: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Syracuse University.

Q: Am I good to go? All right, cool. Thank you very much, sir, for your time.

And so my first question is regarding the potential war possibility between China and the United States. So there was a retired general, I believe, a few weeks ago said that his prediction is within fifteen to twenty years there will be a(n) inevitable war between China and the United States. Now, let’s say if that does happen. Now, where would you say is the potential battlefield would take place? And regarding that, my next question is regarding South and North Korea. So recently we can tell that South Korea and North Korea are working closely to try to resolve some of the disputes independently from China and the United States. So let’s say if one day South Korea and North Korea reach to agreement and decided to work together. And how would China and the United States insert their influence if Korea becomes—like, if the Korean Peninsula really unites? And next question will be regarding the global trade.

DEMPSEY: (Laughs.)

Q: I’m sorry. I have a lot of questions. But I’d really love to hear from you.


Q: So next one is China has been putting a lot of effort to advocate the One Belt, One Road initiative. So as far as I know, from the information I can gather from the news, that a lot of people—a lot of countries that are considered as our allies are eager to participate in this program. Then what does this do, or what kind of potential national security issue it will create for the United States.

DEMPSEY: OK. So in order, yes, I did see the comment by the retired general. I’m not quite sure who it was. I really think you got to be very careful with prognosticating. (Laughs.) It’s hard enough for me to tell you what’s going to happen next year, never mind fifteen or twenty years from now. Obviously I’m familiar with the Thucydides trap and Graham Allison’s work, and this idea that there could be some inevitable conflict between two rising powers. But, boy, maybe I’m just a half-full on that one—glass half-full. I think that would be a catastrophe. I think there are lots of ways to avoid that. So I’m not—I’m not going to acknowledge that I think that that’s inevitable. And we darn sure better do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Were it to happen, of course, the obvious area—the flash point right now is the South China Sea. But, you know, there are lots of processes in place to deconflict in that area. I don’t think the United States is ever going to cede the country’s rights to freedom of navigation around—through the South China Sea. But, you know, the question you have to wrestle with, I think, if you’re a U.S. policymaker, is, you know, what degree of influence is China going to have in that area. And is it a positive influence? Then I don’t think the United States objects to it. If China sets up a tollbooth in the South China Sea, there’ll be more of a conflict. But I don’t think anything like that is inevitable. And I think it would be a huge catastrophe to go down that path.

In terms of South and North Korea interactions, look, I don’t think that the United States should or would do anything to block a rapprochement between the countries. And any kind of peaceful resolution to that dispute is all for the good. So I’m all for talking and I think the administration is on the right track there. I mean, we can question whether the North will ever give us a full accounting or ever get rid of their weapons. And that’ll be paid out over time. But I think it is sure a lot better talking about this than actually having to resort to military conflict.

And then on global trade, yeah, the One Belt, One Road initiative is hundreds and hundreds of different projects—some of which are advancing, some of which are not. You know, it’s one of the reasons—again, I’m not political—but I think that the Trans-Pacific Partnership was built to give our partners in the region an alternative on trade. And I’m all for—it’s not a question of blocking China from doing something but presenting an alternative that is attractive to other countries in the region.

Is that it? (Laughs.) I think that might be it. Yeah.

FASKIANOS: If not we can come back to it. We have several other questions in the queue. So let’s go to the next questioner. Thank you.

DEMPSEY: By the way, I’m very impressed with—I’m very impressed with Indiana, UT, and Syracuse. I think you got three out of my Final Four bracket for my next year’s college NCAA tournament.

FASKIANOS: There you go.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Washington and Lee University.

Q: Hello, sir. Thank you for your talk today.

In one of your articles in The Hill with the title “Winning the National Security Long Game Takes Technology Innovation,” you mentioned that it would be better for U.S. interests to maybe take some money out of the nuclear program and try to funnel it to, you know, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, and all of that. My question is, do you see this as perhaps a future arms race in artificial intelligence between the United States and players like Russia and China?

DEMPSEY: Well, I think in the article, what I have watched for years is we box ourselves in, I think, as a country, when we talk about we have to have a certain amount of money spent on certain things. So, for example, we’re spending, you know, I think between the U.S. defense budget and the intel budget and folding in things—you know, other agencies on the national security side, you’re getting really close to a trillion dollars a year on that type of—that area of spending. And what I would hate to see is that we’re spending, you know, that kind of money—or even, for example, Afghanistan, where we’re spending $40-45 billion a year—and not have sufficient funding to invest in the technologies that re both going to be critical to our future in the private sector and in terms of improving the quality of life for Americans and citizens around the world, and then for our national security interests.

So I think we just have to be careful to look hard at are we spending—I mentioned that earlier. You know, are we spending this vast amount of money that we’re spending on the core technologies that are going to shape the future. You know, does it necessarily lead to an arms race? It’s one of the—you know, if you were to ask me the two things that I’m most worried about of that big basket that I mentioned earlier, I do worry about the international community not being able to come together to do big things, like end wars. So we’re in the seventeenth year in Afghanistan, the seventh year in Libya, the fourth year in Yemen. And I worry about not being able to create norms of behavior in areas where we really need to do that. So, you know, artificial intelligence, I mentioned cyber, I think synthetic biology. There really needs to be a lot of work done diplomatically to sort out what is acceptable, what’s not acceptable, what areas are we—what lines are we not going to cross?

And I think the international community has to do that. And artificial intelligence is a perfect example of that. So is autonomous weapons. Do we really want every country in the world to have weapons that don’t require a human in the firing chain? And then the other big one, in addition to the international community not doing enough, I think, on a lot of these big issues, is the possibility of unintentional conflict. I don’t think any of the great powers want to start a war with each other. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t get one eventually.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Georgetown University.

Q: Hi. This is Jessica Rogers with Georgetown Security Studies Program.

How can the U.S. improve its intel exchange with intel agencies of our allies?

DEMPSEY: Hey, Jessica. How are you? Go Hoyas. My wife used to work there. (Laughs.)

Well, I guess the only thing I would say as a premise is my experience over the last several years—sorry for the horns, by the way. I’m in New York. My experience over the last few years is that we do have really close relationships all over the world. So, you know, obviously everyone always talks about the Five Eyes. You know, the U.K., United States, you know, the partners that, Australia, that make up the Five Eyes. But we do a ton of work all over the world. And I personally in the last few years must have met with dozens of foreign intel services. And we’re pretty open, and they are as well, about sharing information. So I think you’re right to highlight that it’s critical that we do that.

And, you know, for example, you know, in the last administration President Obama was adamant that if we had threat reporting on any country in the world, even if what you might perceive as an enemy state, we would share it. You know, if any citizen anywhere in the world is going to be harmed. So I think the IC—it goes back to that earlier question about what are we better at today? We might be better at that, because it’s a more structured relationship with our foreign partners, who we rely on greatly for information on a range of issues. So I actually think that’s a good news story.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the National War College.

Q: Hey, Mike. Charlie Pasquale here. Good to talk to you.

DEMPSEY: Hey. How are you?

Q: Hey. Good.

Hey, so we’re all too aware that policymakers consider intelligence optional. And when we look at the issues that you’re dealing with, and we’ve got strategic intelligence as a force multiplier, how—competing against the other forms of information that policymakers have, plus the—what we call the tyranny of the tactical within the IC, how can you see the intel support to policymakers be more effective? How does that relationship become more useful?

DEMPSEY: Great question. Yeah, it’s a great question. So, I mean, I’ll give you my experience in—the one—of the three administrations I’ve been around in the last several years, the one I’m most familiar with is the Obama administration, because I was there all the time, you know, from the briefer to the Sit Room. I never thought they viewed intelligence as optional. I think it was—it actually got to the point that it was a dominant—you know, on some issues, that it was a dominant voice. And I actually had concerns about that, because I—you know, the point that I’ve made, I think, in some of the articles that I’ve written is that I want—I always want intelligence to be a, and not the, voice on issues. Which, again, goes back to that idea of when there’s a perceived failure or surprise, it’s really easy to fall into that trap that it’s an intel failure. And the fact is that it’s usually a whole of government. It’s usually a systemic failure. I mean, we do have diplomats overseas. We do have defense attachés. (Laughs.) You know, we have Treasury officials. We have a wealth of open-source information.

So I think for most administrations—and, again, I don’t—I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve been around several. And I think for most of them, intel is not—it may be optional to whether you take a briefing or not. But either reading or taking the briefing probably isn’t optional—it shouldn’t be optional. And in my experience, it’s not. And it is a gigantic force multiplier. I’ve often thought that in many cases the president of the United States knows more about what’s going on in a particular country, just because of all the resources that we have, than maybe some of the leaders of the country that the president’s talking to.

In terms of competition, I never—again, I don’t view it as a competition. I think it’s actually a good thing. And I relied on having access to all sorts of information. So when I was a briefer, I used a lot of open source information. You know, it could be everything from translations, to polling information in a particular country. It could be just economic data. It could be information from think tanks. So I think the IC, from 1990 when I joined to today, is really a great user of a wealth information globally across multiple disciplines. I think that’s actually a very good thing.

So it’s a good question. And I think—I think it probably has evolved over time. But I think where we’re at right now is probably a good place. And the debate over presidential use of intel today tends to focus on whether they read the material they’re given or whether they take an oral briefing. And some presidents do both.

Q: OK.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Mike, just to add on there, how about social media? I mean, we’re obviously hearing a lot more about how social media is being weaponized. How is the intelligence community—what can you say that’s not classified?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. I mean, that’s a fantastic—because I mentioned earlier the idea of us—you know, for decades the United States defense and national security establishment had a great relationship with the scientific and the technology community, including academic community. And I think there’s been a little bit more of a gulf that’s grown, because I think there’s this perception that the IC is just, you know, sucking up all sorts of information and using it for purposes that it’s not intended for. So the idea has always been a privacy concern, whether we’re spying in American citizens or not.

But here’s the thing, I think we just have to be more mature as a country. You know, for—and I am all for, you know, strict oversight of what the intelligence community does. And I’m all for strict regulations that govern what we do with Twitter or Facebook, whatever, Google. But it’s also naïve to think that criminals, and proliferators, and terrorists are not using these platforms, because they are. And there has to be—it goes back to what I was saying about creating new norms. There has to be serious thought given and serious work done between the agencies and the businesses that operate in this space to figure out how it cannot be weaponized, and how people that are trying to use it for nefarious purposes—you know, how they’re doing it and what we can do to counter it.

So it is critical. And where the IC was criticized, I think, initially on this, was during the uprising in Egypt, where it was said, well, there was all this material available on social media that would have been a help—a useful predictor of the unrest. But, again, you know, what happens is, OK, you learn from that and you try to evolve and try to use social media as another form of information. But I just think we can’t, as a country, be afraid of having a serious discussion about it. And, look, there’s nobody that wants oversight of what we do in that space than the people in the intelligence community that are doing it. So if there’s any idea that the IC wants to cross lines or collect information we shouldn’t, we don’t. And especially inside the United States, with U.S. citizens.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question is from George Mason University.

Q: Hi, Mr. Dempsey. This is Jesper Vandenburg (ph) from the Schar School of Policy and Governance. Thank you so much—

DEMPSEY: Hi. How are you?

Q: Doing well. Thank you so much for your time. So my question is going to be a little bit more job-focused. I’m a little bit more on the younger end of this. So in my experience, the intelligence community seems to be gearing more towards, you know, picking up people with foreign language skills. Obviously, you know, I’m going to use Chinese as an example, because that’s the language that I study. Do you have any advice on how to take your language skills, and if it’s worth taking your language skills, beyond, you know, just what you get from Rosetta Stone to Duolingo? And then a second part of that would be, is it also worth sort of reading a lot of, you know, like, Chinese, you know, cultural texts, to sort of get the—get the vibe of the Chinese culture? And is it worth our time to do that as well?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. That’s a great question. So the first thing I would say is I also don’t discount the benefit of just a broad liberal arts education, because what you’re really looking for—you know, challenges and threats that we face evolve, right? So we’re now talking about social media and cyber and artificial intelligence. But when I started almost thirty years ago, we weren’t talking about that. (Laughs.) So it’s impossible to predict with precision. So the first thing I would say to you is, what you’re really looking for—what I really look for, and what I think what my successors would look for, is somebody who’s doing really well at what they do. They have good grades. They’re taking, you know, a serious curriculum. They’re at a good school. And I looked at the list, and all the schools at this list would qualify as a good school.

You know, so what we’re really looking for is the ability to think, to write, you know, to conceptually think, to, you know, achieve success at what you’re doing. And there’s point—you know, it’s not like I cared whether somebody had a 3.5 or a 3.6. What you’re really looking for is a broad package before somebody comes in for an interview. And then you look through all the interpersonal, you know, what kind of—how do they fit in a team, because we tend to work largely in teams. I think intellectual curiosity is a big part of any job that you’re going to apply for. And I think the intel community is—would fit that bill. So I think if you’re interested in China, if you would like to carve out a career working on China, sure, I would study Chinese history. I would study Chinese language. I would read a lot about the country’s current events, you know, take economics maybe.

But, again, I think we got to be careful as a community that we don’t pigeonhole. There is—you know, my experience is you can find successful intelligence and, you know, State Department and FBI officers in lots of different places, from lots of different backgrounds. So my simple advice to you would be, show intellectual curiosity and do well at whatever you’re doing. And don’t be in too much of a rush, because the first time I applied to get into the community I think they lost my application. (Laughs.) I didn’t hear back, and I had to apply again later. And I ended up as the acting DNI. So you never know where you’re going to go.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Rutgers University.

Q: Hello? Can you hear me?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. Yeah. Got you.

Q: Hi. Thank you for your time. And you mentioned that you were concerned about the possibility of a national security crisis while the Trump administration is in power. And I was wondering if you could say a bit more about that? What exactly is it about the inclination—the policy inclinations of this administration that give you pause? And, you know, is there a situation that you envision where things could go really left?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. So, I mean, really, you know, in the financial world they always say, you know, past performance is no indicator of future performance. But what administration has not had a national security crisis, right? (Laughs.) So whether it was the Balkans, which kind of came out of left field for the Clinton administration, you know, before that the invasion of Iraq for Bush forty-one. My God, the Bush administration forty-three, 9/11, the war in Iraq. And you can argue, you know, whether some of that was self-inflicted or not. And the Obama administration, it felt like we had one regularly, with embassies under threat or the Arab Spring or—you know. So I just think it’s inevitable you’re going to have one. And we’ve had two years of not—and not having one. I just think that at some point—that’s not a critique of the Trump administration. It’s more that’s the world.

And I went through those four bins of categories that I gave you. There are a lot of areas where you could—you could easily see something erupt. So, I mean, I mentioned I don’t think the homeland threat is done. I do not. I’m not one of these officers that would argue that everything begins and sets with the war on terror but, look, ISIS has been defeated in Iraq and Syria, but there’s still, you know, eight or so overseas nodes. Al-Qaida is entrenched in Syria, has several other nodes. You’re always—I always as an intel officer feel like you’re one day away from an attack that is a big problem. So that’s just one.

The other thing that we don’t—that doesn’t get a lot of attention is that the U.S. military operates forward in a lot of parts of the world where you’re in close proximity to other countries. So I would pay particular attention to places like Syria, and Iraq, and the South China Sea, the Red Sea, the Black Sea. You know, where you’ve got big militaries right next to each other, which could—you know, we had the incident back in the Bush administration with Hainan Island, where two—the U.S. and the Chinese plane collided. And what goes from, you know, an issue to a crisis, always hard to know in advance. But there’s just a lot of moving parts. And I think inevitably one of those goes bump in the night.

What do I think with the administration? I think the administration’s had a lot of turnover in key positions. And, you know, we’ll see after the midterms if we have more. But I’m a big believer that a structured process inside the National Security Council that takes ideas from experts within all parts of the government, and then experienced leaders—you know, at State and National Security Advisor—helps mitigate a crisis and helps manage it. So, you know, once one erupts, you’re going to have a team that’s going to go through that for the first time together. And we’ll see.

But I just—look, I’m praying there’s not a crisis. But I would bet a lot of money that there will be.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the University of Kentucky.

Q: Hi. My name is Sarah Holloway (sp). And I’m from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

And my question is, you mentioned earlier that climate change is one of the current focal points for the security and intel community. And how is his currently being examined in the intel community? And do you anticipate that this will exacerbate other issues, like terrorism and displacement?

DEMPSEY: On your second point, I don’t—I don’t think there’s any doubt that climate change has contributed to displacement. I think that’s already established. And that’s everywhere from, you know, Africa to, you know, water shortages that are really critical in Iraq, and Iran, and Afghanistan. So I really—and, again, I’m not a scientist, but the fact that the environmental issues are affecting displacement, that’s not really debate—(laughs)—that’s not debatable. That’s occurring.

For the intel community, there’s—you know, and that’s—again, overarching this entire conversation. There is a bandwidth issue, right? There are a lot of things that you’re asking the intel community to be ahead of. And I would argue, the intel community does have a role, but so does State, and, you know, so does—so do many other agencies across the government.

For us, on—inside the intel community, it has largely been an analytic challenge more than necessarily a—you know, you don’t—there is, of course, overhead work that can be done on climate issues, you know, from satellites. But the bulk of where we have contributed on that issue is analytic. And a lot of that work is done at the National Intelligence Council. And it is—it is climate issues being woven into stories about the arc of a country, or a sub-region, or a region.

So it is an issue. It—you know, it is an area that we focus on. It competes with many other, you know, tier one, two, three, or four issues. And I think on the broader point you asked, I think it is absolutely affecting migratory or human displacement patterns.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

And our next question comes from St. Edward’s University.

Q: Hi. My name is Alex Encab (sp).

And I actually had a question in regards to your—you discussed the opioid issue—the war on opioids that’s facing the United States right now. And I was just kind of curious. You know, with opioid use, that then also is translated to drug addiction. So now you’re dealing with drug addicts. And obviously taxpayers don’t want to pay for the rehabilitation of these drug addicts. So how do you—or, how is it planned on combatting that issue, if now you’re dealing with an illness such as drug addiction?

DEMPSEY: Yeah. You’re getting—that—so what I identified for you is the national—what—I believe it to be a national security threat. And I was there in the beginning of the Trump administration, when they identified it as such. And I absolutely agree to this. If you just look at the trends, you know, from 1999 to 2018, a sevenfold increase in drug addiction death. That’s obviously a crisis. So where the—I mean, it’s really more of an issue. Well, there’s obviously all of the social things that go into solving the problem. And, you know, whether you treat it as a health care issue, social wellbeing issue, which of course it is.

Where the intel community might touch the issue is on—you know, we’ve, for years, focused on drug cartels all over the world, and their trafficking patterns and where they move product. So the United States—I mean, the U.S. intel community would have a role in that. You know, some of the precursor chemicals like fentanyl, which has contributed to a lot of the deaths, we would have a role potentially in monitoring those flows.

But this again goes back to what I would call a whole-of-government problem here. If you’ve got 72,000 deaths linked to opioid overdose, that’s more people than have died in all the wars since 9/11 and probably back through Vietnam. So it is a national security crisis to me; it’s also a health crisis and a social crisis, and I think all of it needs—you’re not going to get one of those legs of that stool to fix it, but I think together you can make progress against it.

Q: Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you, next question.

OPERATOR: And the next question comes from Indiana University.

Q: Sir, this is Captain Morgan Press (sp). I’m an infantry officer in the Army.

In your opening remarks you mentioned what constitutes a cyber-active war. In a world of increasing cyber hostilities against the U.S. and by the U.S. against other countries, where do you see—what do you ultimately see constituting a cyber-active war? And what do you see as the short-term impact of the advances in cyber warfare in regards to national security?

DEMPSEY: Well, that’s a great question, and hooah on the infantry service. My brother was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, by the way—(laughs)—so Marty and I served together. That’s another question we can talk about. When my brother and I served together, I was the deputy DNI and Marty was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And we were in the Sit Room and testifying on the Hill together, so small world, small family.

Look, on cyber, I think the history of it is—you know, it seems to me—and I’m not—you know, I think you probably have lots of experts in your schools on cyber issues, but it seems to me we’ve evolved through different stages on the cyber threat, right? So initially you had hackers rooting around inside, you know, trying to maybe gain personal information, you know. Then we’ve had—then it evolved to denial of service attacks, and then it went to, you know, countries and organizations using cyber to destroy computers, and now it seems like we’ve morphed again into, you know, cyberattacks being used to manipulate data or maybe even spoof data.

So it just seems to me like the—that it has escalated over the last decade considerably. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York talking to banks, and they spend a fortune on preventing cyber intrusions. A lot of that is criminal activity, people trying to steal data. But it is a really scary proposition; that if you are going to wake up and, you know, all of your computers have been wiped, or somebody is—and all your personal information taken, or somebody is, you know, manipulating, you know, information on, you know, transportation systems, the power grid.

So there—a new national security strategy was put out by the Trump administration this year, and that’s kudos to them because we hadn’t had one in several years. But I think there’s more work done on identifying the threat than there is on articulating who has what authority to counter it, and what actually is an act of war, what is something that needs offensive retaliation. So it’s just a really fluid situation right now.

I mean, to me, if there is a cyber activity that causes a loss of life, you are getting—you know, you are crossing into the line where I think it probably is an act—it’s an act that requires a response, and whether we call it war or not, you can’t have American citizens—or citizens anywhere—killed by cyber activity.

But the scary thing is the technology exists, and could in the future, to make that a reality, so we’d better define the norms. And thankfully, sitting on the Council on Foreign Relations, I’m not really being asked about—(laughs)—my opinion on that. But I think somebody had better be thinking about it. OK?

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Monroe Community College.

Q: Hi. Thank you, Mr. Dempsey, for meeting with all of us—well, not—yeah.

DEMPSEY: (Laughs.)

Q: Anyhow, my name is Matthew Ferrin (sp). I am the head of the political science club of Monroe Community College.

And my question for you is what do you feel is our—as in the United States—role with regards to the major population displacements in recent history. Do we have a responsibility or obligation to provide increased and more direct aid and refuge, or take a back seat in the situation?

D0EMPSEY: So it’s a great question, Matthew. You know, in my conversations with my counterparts all over the world, it was not infrequent for them to mention to me the threat that emerges from populations that are displaced, living in misery. You know, it certainly makes populations like that vulnerable to extremist messaging. So I think there is—my own personal view here—I think there is a moral component to responding to it; I think there is a national security component to responding to it.

And the administration has, by the way, I mean, I—and U.S. U.N. Ambassador Haley went down to Colombia and provided funding to help with the Venezuelan refugees, which is an absolutely terrible situation where more than a million Venezuelans have fled the country.

It goes back again—so what do I think the United States can do? I think the leadership part of it is the big thing. I think it’s a bully pulpit, and I think it’s convening major Western and great powers around the world to actually do something to improve the living conditions. And the other big thing is ending these wars because many of these refugees are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan—wars that just seem like they never end.

So I—yeah, I—it would be a sad commentary if we didn’t have some responsibility, and I think it’s in our interests, both because it’s the right thing to do and then because I do think it’s a national security issue.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

Our next question comes from Savannah State University.

Q: Hi, this is Dr. Edoh—as we all know, political science professor.

I have two questions. The first one is really domestic.

First of all, thank you, Mr. Dempsey, for your remarks. Recent bomb threats and last weekend’s synagogue shooting were very, very scary. How can the U.S. intelligence community prevent this type of threat from being carried out?

The second one—in your earlier remarks you have not mentioned Africa, and of course you do know what is going on in Cameroon between the English-speaking country—English-speaking part of the country and the government. And also we have a U.S. presence in Cameroon. Do you think the United States has a responsibility in preventing a potential and possible civil war in Cameroon?

DEMPSEY: Thank you for the question. So on the synagogue shootings, that again—I think you are going to a whole-of-government response to that because, as an intel community, the first question we get asked is was there—is it linked to terrorism. That’s the first question that will always be asked. And it can be an individual, or it can be a cell, or it can be, you know, just inspirational.

In this case, you know—you probably know as much as I do; I’ve just seen on the news—it looks to me like purely domestic; somebody, you know, inspired by online, you know, stuff that they had read or heard and, you know, I don’t what condition they were in before they heard it, but they became radicalized and went into the synagogue.

So for the U.S. intelligence community, you know, I mean, I—you know, you could start getting into questions of gun control, you know, mental health, what responsibility the community has to identify somebody who needs help. But as an intel community, just strictly, it’s not—whenever it’s domestic, you’re really talking about the FBI. So the Federal Bureau of Investigation would have a role because there, I think—whether it’s hate crime or it becomes a law enforcement issue more than a core IC issue.

On Africa, no, I used to lead the office at CIA that did Africa so I’m—I have spent time there. I think that it is really easy—amid all the challenges that I mentioned before—to lose sight of, you know, really important developments from, you know, Kenya to Ethiopia, to Somalia, to Nigeria. And I think that the United States clearly would want to play a role in preventing a—I mean, you feel like, again, the Congo is another one of these conflicts that just never seems to end.

And, yeah, I think the United States—certainly diplomatically and certainly probably through aid, would want to play a role before a crisis becomes much, much worse. And, you know, I had my—one of my—my son was a college student, did a summer in Rwanda, and went through, you know, some of the reconciliation villages. And the—you know, I think one of the lessons there is that, you know, an early intervention can prevent a lot of the future carnage, so—the potential carnage so, yeah, I’d absolutely think that what’s critical there is that we have, you know, an assistant secretary and a national—senior director at the NSC—assistant secretary of state and a senior director at the NSC, and then the ambassadors that are leading the effort because it really is—I’m sympathetic to the administration getting pulled in 85 different directions, but you never want to lose sight of, you know, a continent that’s that important to the world’s future.

Q: OK, thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Pomona College.

Q: Hi. My name is Brian (sp).

My question is with regard to U.S.-Russia relations. I think the first part of my question is, from an intelligence point of view, where do you see Russia-U.S. relations going in the future, and my second part of the question is also regarding Russia. What usually happens when the White House and the intelligence community seem to be in a disagreement over a possible situation—the example being Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016 and the intelligence community kind of giving the warning, or kind of like giving information to the White House and the White House seemingly not—at least according to the president—being in full agreement with that. How does that situation usually end, or what—how do you guys move forward after that?

Thank you.

DEMPSEY: Yeah, it’s—again, two very good questions. So on the—here’s the thing. For the intel community, what you are looking for from any president is that your voice is heard. They don’t have to agree—(laughs)—you know, so, you know, what you are really looking for is that the president takes on board the information—here’s what we believe—and then as far as I am concerned personally—and this is me speaking—if I—then I have done my duty. My job is not to—you know, I didn’t get elected in the Electoral College—(laughs)—so my job is to say this is what we believe happened; take it or leave it. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to disagree, but that’s what we believe. And I think that’s what the IC has done, and I think that’s what they should do.

Now the public disagreements—I mean, it looks to me like a lot of that was primarily a belief on the part of the administration that the people that were leading some of the key agencies were appointed by the previous president, and that was the focal point of some of the disagreement. But in terms of the president’s view right now of the IC, look, he can have whatever view he wants, and the IC is going to do what it is trained and mandated to do, which is say what we believe happened. And I think that—so I think that’s where it is, and I don’t think the IC will budge one inch on what it believes happened.

In terms of the U.S.-Russia relations, it’s a great question. You know, I’ve written on it. It’s an incredibly complex one. The intelligence communities—I mentioned before, you know, I was there—I have, at different points in my life, been there personally when we have shared threat information with the Russian intel service. You know, there are clearly areas where there should—there should be areas that we can cooperate on. I mean, if we can’t cooperate on countering proliferation or countering terrorism, there is something seriously wrong.

But that intel relationship is set again a backdrop of U.S.-Russia broad relation which are not going to improve if the Russians are meddling in the U.S. elections and, you know, targeting with nerve agent Russian citizens inside London, you know, doing stuff against the OPCW in the Netherlands. Yeah, there’s just a spate of activities that we’re never going to get past if the Russians are in—you know, seizing Crimea, supporting the Ukrainian separatists, the involvement in shooting down the MH17. These are not small issue so, yeah, I think that there should be areas that we can cooperate, but I think the broad relationship is going to make that very hard for the near future.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Texas.

Q: Sir, to what extent, in your opinion, should the U.S. invest more in helping institutions in other countries improve themselves or purposes, minimizing the war effort, and enhancing peace, and improving—or that is, addressing a conflict that currently exists with other countries?

DEMPSEY: You can probably tell from what I’ve said that I think that’s an absolutely—so it goes to the idea of kind of soft power and the role of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department. I’m with General Mattis on that where he said, if you don’t fund those kind of activities, you’d better fund the Defense Department more because you are going to have more conflicts to get involved in.

I think it’s absolutely critical. Personally I think, you know, one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I think that the more that we can do, you know, to help with, you know—you know, I was in the Obama administration in West Africa and—during the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, and that effort, while publicized, does not get a lot of recognition. That was a whole-of-government effort to contain and to deal with the outbreak of that disease—you know, Ebola, which spread quickly in 18 months and went to six different countries, and I think it affected thirty thousand people. That could have been much, much, much worse.

So, you know, transplant that approach to ending conflicts like the one in Afghanistan, the one in Libya, the one in Yemen. The benefits of it are just enormous, you know. It keeps people in their country. It doesn’t make them live this wandering, itinerant lifestyle as a refugee for ten years. It doesn’t make them vulnerable to extremism. You know, there is just so much goodness that comes from proactively bolstering institutions and peace processes in countries that it’s—to me it’s a no-brainer that we should be doing that kind of work—and not just—and leading the European allies and our Western allies to do that; not just us. You know, the United States has a huge budget, but it’s not just a money thing.

Typically, you know, my experience in recent years has been that the U.S. has, you know, only had a few arrows in its quiver of policy responses, and I think we need to get past a prism that looks at military solution or economic sanctions and goes to diplomacy and international aid, international assistance.

Q: Thank you, sir.


FASKIANOS: We’re almost out of time, and I thought, Mike, that you could leave us once with some thoughts on pursuing a career in the intelligence community and just, more broadly, you know, public service.

DEMPSEY: Well, thanks, Irina. Thanks, everybody, for joining. You have really, really good questions. I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

Look, I am biased—(laughs)—having been in the Army and in the intel community. You know, I’ve also served on the Joint Chiefs—Joint Staff as a representative. I’ve served at the NSC staff and the policy world. So I think it’s just—serving in the government is a really powerful, kind of defining experience for people, whether they do it for four years or, in my case, 30. So I would just encourage you to be open to doing it.

I think public service is a big thing. It’s really important, I think—and many of you sound like you are kind of youngish and in that process of thinking through what you want to do. It doesn’t have to be government, doesn’t have to be national security, but the—your ability to be part of something bigger than yourselves and being part of a team is just profoundly shaping of your future life.

And I’ve had a lot of friends that have gone from the community to business—to be business leaders; to become, you know, academics; to, you know, work with tech companies—and I think the experience, you know, as a U.S. citizen, having people that have had all these broad experiences and have given back just makes the country better off in the future.

So I’d leave you with the idea that public service is, I think, and ennobling thing to do; that you don’t have to do it—I’ve never bought this idea that you have to serve in the military, you have to serve in the intel community. There’s tons of really great places to work, and we mentioned some of them before—USAID, State Department. You really—there’s something about representing the country and giving back that I think is profoundly important.

So I wish you all your best—all the best in your career journey, and if anybody wants to chat about anything else, you can always find me at the CFR website. (Laughs.) OK, have a happy Halloween everybody.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Mike Dempsey. We really appreciate it, and it’s been really an honor for us to have you in residence over the past year and a half, and we look forward to—if you don’t know this already, Mike is prolific with op-ed pieces and whatnot, and you can find them on our website, So I encourage you to continue to follow his analysis there.

So our next call will be on Wednesday, November 14 at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Cecelia Rouse, professor in the economics of education and the dean of the Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, will lead a conversation on “U.S. Economic Security and the Future of Work.” She served on an independent task force report that we released last spring on this topic.

I encourage you to visit and follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Campus for information on new CFR research and upcoming events.

Thank you all again for joining us today, and we hope you enjoy this Halloween day. Thank you.


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