The United States invades Iraq; President Obama orders a drone strike. These actions, and most other major military decisions, rely on information from the United States intelligence community.
This past Thursday, retired U.S. Naval Intelligence Commander Jon Olson gave a presentation on the sharing of federal intelligence, discussing recent changes in both methods of gathering intelligence and the ethics of intelligence itself.
Initially, Olson described his experience writing intelligence reports in Finland. He then segued into a more controversial topic: how the flawed intelligence that led to the Iraqi War led to citation requirements for intelligence reports. These changes were spurred in part by the high costs of the Iraqi War.
Currently, the intelligence community has methods to reduce costs, such as contracting out intelligence analysis to defense contractors so that the government does not have to pay generous retirement packages to intelligence analysts. Still, intelligence is expensive, costing the United States government approximately 75.4 billion dollars per year on average. “What could we do with all of that money if we did not spend it on the intelligence community?” Olsen asked.
Olsen also elaborated on the main ethical issues in federal intelligence, highlighting that federal intelligence encourages “secrets kept from the citizens of an open and free society,” as well as a “loss of privacy…for the citizens of the United States,” since the government may have access to citizens’ information without their knowledge. He also mentioned “the role of the intelligence agency in human rights violations.”
Finally, Olsen explained how the United States intelligence community’s focus on Al-Qaeda distracted it from other threats.
Foreign intelligence agents, he asserted, have succeeded in stealing a lot of proprietary technology from United States companies in the last decade, especially in China.
Finally, he discussed the use of drones. Drone technology, Olsen said, “has grown so fast it is now the backbone of United States intelligence operations.” The most advanced modern drone has more bandwidth than the entire United States army had during the First Gulf War—but is not without ethical costs. “Drones shorten the kill chain from months to minutes,” said Olsen. The “kill chain” is the time from identifying a target to destroying it, so shortening that time generates concern over the destruction of potentially innocent targets.
Student responses to Commander Olson varied, although most found the presentation itself very interesting. “I thought that what was most interesting was his analysis of the changes that have taken place in the intelligence community in the last decade,” said Jackson Bahn ’16.
“The discussion of ethical challenges, and how intelligence operations respond to those, was fascinating,” said Daniel Simmons-Marengo ’14. “It’s very interesting to see that agencies actually acknowledge the moral issues with what they’re doing.”
Evan Osborne ’13 agreed, commenting that he “really enjoyed the discussion over third-party intelligence corporations,” although “it would have been nice if Commander Olson [had] delved a little deeper into some of the political risk/reward of going after [sensitive] intelligence.”
Other students were more critical of Olson’s presentation of intelligence gathering. Maddie Ulanow ‘15 said, “I thought it was interesting how [Commander Olsen] kept pointing out the moral and ethical dilemmas the army faces, but also interesting how he never quite elaborated on how they are discussed and solved…”
Likewise, Osborne “would have liked to hear more about [the ethical concerns of sharing intelligence]--how much should we know, if we should know anything at all?”
Olson ending his talk with a provocative question to his audience: “do you think it is worth it?” As students, we are therefore left to wonder: are the benefits of gathering intelligence worth the ethical and fiscal costs?