2019 National Intelligence Strategy: Experts Weigh In

Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats unveiled the 2019 National Intelligence Strategy.  Our experts weighed in about the strengths and weaknesses of this new strategy. 

January 23, 2018

Bryson Bort – NSI Fellow; Founder & CEO, SCYTHE

“For the first time since the Cold War, Western liberal democracy is seriously at risk, and the ODNI is finally catching on. The quadrennial refresh of the national intelligence strategy is updated to reflect the 21st century where intelligence and our adversaries are increasingly at the cutting edge of technology. ‘Other emerging, disruptive technologies’ enable access and influence in a truly asymmetric way and we are, and have been, the most vulnerable.”



Megan Brown – NSI Senior Fellow and Associate Director for Cybersecurity; Partner, Wiley Rein LLP

“The NIS is constrained in what it can really tell the world about the United States’ strategy, but it offers an important sense of what worries our government. In that respect we see themes that are similar to what DHS and others are saying, with continued blurring of public and private fields of engagement.  Such consistency is good.  For example the NIS rightly addresses cyber as a major challenge for the foreseeable future. Lurking under the surface are unaddressed issues of international cyber norms, defenses, and how the IC can help protect and defend US companies from a daily onslaught of attacks and threats.

Interestingly it calls for better insight—’anticipatory intelligence’ —into evolving technologies like AI and connected devices, but doesn’t grapple with emerging threats to its abilities. The government’s national security interest in new tech is not new. The Commerce Department is right now considering export controls on a variety of emerging technology categories, to try to keep our adversaries from getting them. But regulating US companies and emerging tech may drive some innovation offshore, further straining the IC’s ability to understand and anticipate issues.

The NIS also lauds partnerships with private organizations, but I see obstacles to partnership and other IC goals.  First, we have an undercurrent of global mistrust and misunderstanding of US law and regulatory philosophy.  Other regions sit in judgment of the adequacy of US privacy law, or seek to impose their own regulatory regimes on data use, IoT devices and more. States in the US are also setting up a regulatory and punitive approach. Varied regulatory efforts may have unintended consequences, make it more difficult for innovators, and chill cooperation with the government.  The IC and others in government must champion the US positions and interests, including against regulatory threats that undermine partnerships.


The IC cannot stop these trends. The IC should work with agencies and global partners that can reiterate the importance of voluntary partnerships and information sharing to cyber and tech policy here and abroad.”

Cam Burks – NSI Visiting Fellow; Deputy Chief Security Officer, Chevron Corporation

The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy of the United States is a superbly organized roadmap that will favorably position our country for much longer than the stated four year target.  Reading more like a business plan than bureaucratic doctrine, this strategy identifies foundational imperatives that will enable our country to assume a sustainable competitive advantage on a global level. Of particular importance is the timing of its release.  Our country needed to see this plan now, during a period of national political turmoil, to publicly reaffirm the strength of how their government will provide bonafide national security.  I commend Director Coats for not only his exceptional strategic vision and leadership of the community, but for his adroitness in providing Americans with an injection of confidence at just the right time.

The identified mission objectives are correctly prioritized, calibrated to the current day landscape with a deeper emphasis in the geopolitical space, intuitively designed, steeped in many of the basic, traditional elements that have made our national intelligence function comparatively superior for years.  What differentiates this strategy, however, is its clear recognition of the role of the enterprise.

Enterprise’s focus on people talent and organizational capability, as well as scalable integration, innovation, accountability, business and performance management, and the leverage power of partnerships, are measurable priorities found in most successful corporate environments.  We do this well in America, and its application, to an appropriate degree, within our intelligence apparatus, will give us that competitive advantage we need to persevere in any circumstance.

I believe strongly that our people – our intelligence professionals who dedicate their lives to protect our nation – are the most important component of this entire Strategy.  The current uncertainty in the federal employee community vis-a-vis the ‘shutdown’ and recent, uneven political commentary of the intelligence community, presents a tangible risk to its sustainability.  Attraction, retention, diversity, and professional development of this specific government workforce is profoundly important and my hope is that our national leaders realize the associated criticality and commit to it in any political environment.  The stakes are much too high for any alternative.

Dr. Nicholas Dujmovic – NSI Visiting Fellow; former Staff Historian, Central Intelligence Agency

Intelligence is primarily an executive function, and this National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) succeeds as a succinct yet comprehensive statement of this administration’s concerns and priorities regarding intelligence missions and activities.  Yet, you wouldn’t know from this document that by law, Congress plays an important role in setting intelligence priorities.  The NIS mentions Congress in an almost pro forma manner and exclusively on the receiving end of intelligence products and oversight reporting requirements.  This new and feisty Congress, with its renewed emphasis on legislative oversight of executive functions, may have something to say about the new National Intelligence Strategy.   I see the potential for Congress asserting itself in two areas:  counterintelligence, and the structure of the Intelligence Community itself.

Congress has a history of telling the IC that it’s not doing a good job on counterintelligence, and with all the information breaches, blown spies, and brazen influence operations the U.S. has suffered at the hands of especially Russian and Chinese intelligence, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Congress took the initiative to radically reform US counterintelligence.  The NIS identifies CI as a priority, but Congress might ask, ‘Why is it in seventh and last place, when these foreign actors are eating our lunch?’  And Congress might not stop at CI:  DNI Coats should prepare for questions from the new oversight committees like, ‘Explain to me why we need 17 intelligence agencies.’

Amyn Gilani – NSI Visiting Fellow; Vice President of Product, 4iQ

The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy is exactly what the Intelligence Community needs right now. Since 9/11, the threat landscape has completely evolved and previously dated strategies have been predominantly focused on adversaries similar to al-Qaeda to a point where we were operating too tactically and not prioritizing long-term mission objectives. This strategy focuses on the ’21st century challenges’ which include improvements in intelligence collection, cybersecurity, emerging technologies, and workforce growth and retention.

The DNI has given a larger platform to Cyber Threat Intelligence (formerly Cyber Intelligence). The fifth domain is getting the attention it deserves; previously writing on cyber focused on understanding adversaries, vulnerabilities, and threat detection/prevention. Now, DNI is stating how economies, health, safety, and prosperity could be at risk through cyberspace. Americans’ private data is constantly targeted by nation-sate and cybercriminal adversaries through retailers, healthcare, and various industries and the DNI is finally addressing this.

We also see some remnants of Edward Snowden and Vault 7 as there’s an introduction to new terms, like Insider Threat. Understanding the risks at the enterprise level is also key to understanding the full threat picture. We know that Russia and China play long-term games and we must be proactive on identifying insider threats, who could possibly be the person working right next to you.

Finally, the most impactful part of the strategy is people. In the ‘People’ section, we really see a reflection of the Intelligence Community workforce and how much it has struggled with retention. In the last five years, we’ve seen so much turnover within the private sector that the IC has been depleted of talent. However, this new strategy is breaking boundaries and creating a progressive work-culture. The message is bold on ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ specifically stating that the IC welcomes all types of ‘national origin, language, race, color, mental or physical disability, ethnicity, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structure.’ This is a large step forward for the DNI to address how important the people are to the mission, no matter where you come from.

In a time where defense policy seems to be struggling, it’s great to see a strategy that is tailored for staying ahead of our opponents and supporting the modern-day intelligence analysts and operators.

Kristen Hajduk – NSI Visiting Fellow; Regional Director for the National Capital Region, MD5 – The National Security Technology Accelerator

“The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy acknowledges the challenge of our generation: while our ability to gather, access, and utilize data is exponentially increasing, our biological ability to process, understand, and assess the consequences of the increasing amounts of information has not changed nearly as fast. Ultimately, this makes it more difficult for analysts, decision makers and average citizens to distinguish the irrelevant from the important. This ‘noise’ can and, often does, lead to either decision-making paralysis and/or missed opportunities.

We must adapt our structures and processes to operate effectively in this information-saturated, hyper-connected, hyper-distributed global environment.  We need to change the way we do business and learn how to leverage emerging technologies to sort through the noise and buy back the time we need to govern events and not be governed by them.  We need to bridle and saddle the technological horses of the information age, not be trampled by them.

The first step is to acknowledge and understand these factors that are driving our current security environment.  The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy effectively brings this priority to the fore.

Matthew R. A. Heiman– NSI Senior Fellow and Associate Director for Global Security; Chairman of the Cyber & Privacy Working Group, Regulatory Transparency Project

“The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) is more a circumspect document than the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, and it reads more like a catalogue of activities than a detailed strategy document.  The lack of greater specificity is to be expected when dealing with the Intelligence Community (IC).  That being said, there are two items of note.  The NIS cites Russia, China, and Iran as U.S. adversaries, but it refers to North Korea as a ‘mutual concern’ for China and the U.S.   The softer treatment of North Korea is likely a nod toward the ongoing diplomatic discussions about denuclearization.  The NIS makes cyber and cybersecurity a priority, which is appropriate, but insider threats, which are responsible for the intelligence community’s  biggest black eyes in the last decade (e.g. Snowden and the loss of NSA cyberweapons likely caused by NSA employees) are addressed with standard boilerplate.  Let’s hope efforts to address this real risk go beyond the routine.”

Jamil N. Jaffer – NSI Founder; former Chief Counsel and Senior Advisor for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Associate Counsel to President George W. Bush

“The National Intelligence Strategy released yesterday starts out strong with a solid assessment of the current challenges facing the U.S. government, noting the weakening of the post-WWII international order, our own increasingly isolationist tendencies, and the broad range of threats posed by our enemies.  It rightly highlights ongoing Russian influence efforts—part of what is likely to be judged the most successful covert and overt influence operation in history—and also correctly calls out the fact that both Russian and Chinese global efforts often directly conflict with our national security objectives.  The strategy also rightly highlights the threats posed by Iran and North Korea in a range of areas, including pursuit of WMD, support for terrorist groups, and aggressive cyber activities, and is likewise accurate in forecasting that outer space and cyberspace are likely to be key domains of future conflict as they are leveraged by our adversaries, as well as the potential effects of the spread and adoption of disruptive technologies, not to mention the continuing threat of international terrorism.

But there the strength of the document unfortunately ends.  The NIS overall lacks a clear, driving vision that is new, daring, and different and that is able to squarely grapple with the changing threat landscape it identifies.  Much of what is in this strategy in terms of implementing policies and procedures feels like it could have been written in the Cold War.  Luckily, though, the IC has strong leaders that can still drive change, even if the strategy itself could have been more visionary.

When Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, was in the Senate, he was a leader on a wide range of issues, in particular, on confronting Russian aggression head-on.  One hopes he might return to that role having correctly identified the threat facing our nation and the West more generally.  DNI Coats is precisely the kind of leader we need at this challenging time; likewise, leaders like Gina Haspel at CIA, Chris Wray at the FBI, Ellen McCarthy at State INR, Betty Sapp at NRO, and Gen. Paul Nakasone at NSA, and many others like them also deserve our support.”


Andy Keiser – NSI Fellow; former Senior Advisor House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Give credit to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats for laying out a four-year strategy for the intelligence community (IC) that provides strategic direction and a general framework of the threat environment to which the IC is to respond.

While the document itself is a bit preoccupied with buzzwords and generalities, the framework is the right one to direct the IC to combat the threats from hostile nation state and transnational terror organizations in domains from traditional espionage, to cyber to space.”


Dr. Andrea Little Limbago – NSI Senior Fellow and Associate Director for Emerging Technologies; Chief Social Scientist, Virtru

The dual-use nature of emerging technologies appropriately resonates throughout the NIS; we are just on the cusp of how disruptive these technologies will be. Within the strategic environment, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and nano- and bio-tech are among the many emerging technologies highlighted as potential threats. As the NIS notes, these technologies dramatically shift power relations and create new asymmetries that have the potential to cause greater instability. At the same time, many of these emerging technologies are essential to strengthen intelligence and national security. The core enterprise objectives include a significant focus on new technologies to help secure and safeguard data, while allowing for innovation and data sharing to meet mission objectives. Importantly, the NIS reasserts America’s commitment to privacy and civil liberties at a time when digital authoritarianism puts them at great risk across the globe.

Harold Moss – NSI Visiting Fellow; Senior Director Strategy & Business Development, Web Products, Akamai Technologies

Director Coats offers a clear and logical approach for addressing the evolving threat landscape. By highlighting emerging technologies and focusing on non-traditional threat vectors he is laying the foundation for a more flexible and relevant approach to modern threats. The emphasis on expanding the national security corpus of intelligence beyond traditional boundaries, to encompass academia and industry will enable a far more resilient approach to proactively managing the threat landscape facing our nation.

I am especially enthused as Director Coats intelligently calls out two core challenges often overlooked or ignored with respect to talent acquisition and innovation. While he does not highlight how he will address these problems directly, the acknowledgement that a broader issue exists with respect to future endeavors beyond the present day concerns is encouraging. Far too often strategy is mired in the weeds of today.  Director Coats has put forth a reasonable plan that looks at addressing the problems of the forest as opposed to a handful of trees.

Elliott Phaup – NSI Visiting Fellow; Policy Advisor, Representative Dutch C. A. Ruppersberger

The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy builds on its predecessors in charting a path forward for the U.S. Intelligence Community in the years to come. The DNI rightfully characterizes the world we live in as ‘turbulent’ and ‘complex,’ and renews a focus on the emerging threats being leveraged by our adversaries – including those in space and cyberspace. Among others, I’m encouraged to see a focus in areas like cyber threat intelligence, leveraging partnerships to tackle tough challenges, and finding ways to harness the data rich environment of the future by empowering the IC’s unique and innovative workforce.

The NIS sets objectives which will help the IC evaluate its performance and while many areas of the NIS are encouraging, some aspects and characterizations of the volatility we are seeing at home and abroad are all too real. Whether it is isolationism, climate change affecting migration or the threats posed by the ‘weakening of the dominance of Western democratic ideals’, these are all concerning threats that the IC can’t tackle alone and will require leadership across government.

Bryan Smith – NSI Senior Fellow; former Budget Director, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

As a former intelligence operations officer and senior resource manager, I cannot imagine what practical use any intelligence officer could make of this so-called ‘National Intelligence Strategy’.  A strategy should clearly articulate an organization’s objectives by priority, when they will be achieved, where, and by whom.  Most importantly a strategy maps out how these objectives will be achieved.

A true strategy will have almost as much to say about what an organization won’t do, as about what it will.  One tried and true approach to strategic formulation is to undertake a brutally honest examination of an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (‘SWAT’).  The ODNI attempts nothing of the sort here.

Instead of a strategy, we are presented with a generalized description of what the Intelligence Community does or is supposed to do (organized into seven piles).  There is no hint, for example, as to whether cyber threat intelligence should lay claim to greater resources than counterterrorism or counterproliferation, or whether the IC should prioritize Russia and China over Iran, North Korea, and terrorists.  Neither does there appear to be any intellectual link between this document and the National Defense Strategy, which actually does set some priorities.  Perhaps the document’s biggest failing, however, is that it is all ‘what’ and no ‘how’.  Exhortations, such as ‘strengthening efforts’, ‘bolstering’, ‘enhancing’, ‘expanding’ or ‘leveraging’ this thing or that do not constitute a strategy of ‘how’ to get things done.

Dan Wagner – NSI Visiting Fellow; Legislative Liaison for Policy and Budget

The problem with this National Intelligence Strategy (NIS), as with previous ones, is that it speaks more to how we have been conducting intelligence functions and not enough on the future.

A strategy is supposed to lay the groundwork for the future and a way forward.  The 2019 NIS does to a point, but misses the mark on the ‘how’ of fully incorporating the influences that affect intelligence assessments (technology, geopolitics, finance, trade, etc).  It also misses the ‘how’ to remain relevant to an administration that has been accused of undervaluing intelligence.

Given the shift in priorities in the National Defense Strategy (NDS), dialing the thermostat down on terrorism and increasing the emphasis on great power competition, it was expected to see the National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) make some adjustments.  The difference between the 2019 NIS and the 2014 NIS though was negligible.  Definitely not enough to illustrate the shift in strategy necessary to refocus intelligence assets and energy to align with the National priorities.  Additionally, it is not enough to likely win over one of the biggest customers, the US President.

That said, the NIS has historically done a reasonably good job broadly covering all the threats to the US, and the 2019 version is no different.  There is, after all, only so much that can be covered in an unclassified document on intelligence.  The NIS is meant to be an overall wire structure to focus the intel enterprise.

There is not enough of a change in this year’s NIS to cause any major changes in the Intelligence Community.  With a new strategy developed and released every four years, the larger concern is if this strategy has focused enough on the future rather than relaying how the enterprise has been doing business.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this analysis are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Security Institute or any agency of the U.S. government. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the National Security Institute or any U.S. government entity.