Intelligence in the Biden Administration


President-elect Joe Biden will have two intelligence priorities when he replaces Donald Trump in January. The first is repairing relations with the intelligence community. The second is using intelligence to implement Biden’s grand strategy. Intelligence is in line to play a particularly important role in the next administration, but this won’t be possible unless the new president restores a sense of normalcy to intelligence-policy relations.

When Trump started his campaign, he promised his supporters a new kind of White House. Ever the populist, he vowed to drain the swamp of Washington careerists and fight back against the “deep state” that supposedly controlled the levers of foreign policy. He took special aim at intelligence leaders, accusing them of leaking damaging information to reporters and comparing them with Nazis. Trump’s accusations led to concerns that he would replace intelligence chiefs with political loyalists and bully the intelligence community into submission. On most issues, however, this has not occurred. Trump has been more inclined to ignore intelligence than politicize it. Fears that he would manipulate intelligence agencies, forcing them to deliver estimates that supported his policy preferences, did not come to pass.



The possible exceptions have been the scandals over Russia and Ukraine, in which the president faced charges of enlisting foreign powers to undermine his domestic rivals. Trump’s behavior toward the intelligence community has been noticeably different when his political future was on the line. When Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats resigned in August 2019, Trump nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tx.) to replace him. Despite the fact that Ratcliffe had very little experience in intelligence, he gained attention by aggressively challenging Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Ratcliffe withdrew his nomination when Republican senators signaled that he might not gain their consent, and Trump elevated Joseph Maguire to the position. But Maguire reportedly infuriated the president by releasing a whistleblower report on Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian president, setting in motion the chain of events leading to his impeachment. When it came time to replace one acting director of national intelligence with another, Trump chose Richard Grenell, a ferociously pro-Trump partisan with no intelligence background at all. As a coda, Trump ultimately resuscitated Ratcliffe’s nomination, and he won confirmation from a divided Senate in May 2020. Soon thereafter, he faced accusations of helping Trump’s campaign by selectively declassifying documents related to Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election.

Episodes of politicization are hard to judge. Relevant records may not see the light of day for years or decades, and they are usually subject to debate. That said, it’s a fair bet that many intelligence professionals are troubled by Trump’s attitude toward the community, and especially by his appointment of his supporters to positions of leadership. These concerns may have increased after the election, when the president replaced the undersecretary of defense for intelligence with a young political operator with a reputation as a loyalist, and rumors spread that CIA Director Gina Haspel was also at risk. The appointment of a relatively inexperienced National Security Council official to serve as general counsel to the National Security Agency also raised alarms that the administration was “burrowing” political appointees into career positions.

How will Biden address concerns about intelligence-policy dysfunction? In one sense this should be easy. Because Trump focused most of his attention on the director of national intelligence, the new administration can send a strong signal by appointing a new director with long experience and a reputation for professionalism. This is not to say the next director should be a robot: The position calls for someone who can simultaneously navigate White House and congressional politics, while also overseeing a sprawling constellation of bureaucracies. But choosing a veteran intelligence leader would go a long way toward restoring a sense of normalcy in the intelligence community. (Biden’s first pick, Avril Haines, almost surely qualifies.) After inauguration day, Biden can also increase the frequency of White House briefings, make personal visits to agency headquarters, and take other simple steps to incorporate intelligence in the policy process.

Like all presidents, Biden will experience friction with the intelligence community. The intelligence and policy communities are different tribes with different characteristics: Intelligence analysts tend to be cautious about making firm predictions, for example, while policymakers want clear judgments. For this and other reasons, some amount of friction is hard-wired into intelligence-policy relations. This is a good thing, because too much harmony can lead to wishful thinking and policy myopia. In the ideal, intelligence-policy relations are characterized by just the right amount of tension. Intelligence leaders must feel secure enough in their role to challenge policy assumptions, and policymakers must be free to criticize poor analysis.

Biden’s task, then, is to restore trust with the intelligence community without bending over backwards to reassure intelligence officials of his good intentions. Repairing intelligence-policy relations is important, but the president-elect should not overdo things, or shy away from healthy disagreements. The president-elect stands to gain a lot from striking the right balance, because his emerging grand strategy relies heavily on intelligence.

Grand Strategy in the Biden Administration

Biden’s grand strategy is not mysterious. An establishment centrist, the president-elect champions democracy, trade, and international institutions. His views are firmly in the liberal mainstream, and international observers welcome his commitment to leading the rules-based order. For Biden, the bedrock of American security is its commitment to the community of democracies, which will remain united only if Washington remains resolute. “The world doesn’t organize itself,” he declared in Foreign Affairs this spring.

But there are limits. Although Biden echoes familiar calls for U.S. leadership abroad, he is noticeably reluctant to use force. In 2002 he voted for the authorization to use force against Iraq. Since then, however, he has become much more dubious about military action, and more willing to offer alternatives. He opposed the Iraq surge in 2007, preferring instead to grant autonomy to Iraq’s regions as a way of taking the air out of its ongoing civil war. Critics derided his approach as a “soft partition,” but Biden held his ground even after the apparent early success of the surge. Biden’s skepticism grew during his time as vice president in the Obama administration, and he became the de facto leader of White House doves. Biden opposed the troop surge in Afghanistan, air strikes in Libya, arming rebels in Syria, and sending extensive military aid to Ukraine.

One reason for Biden’s reticence is the price tag. Big wars are a long-term drain on economic resources that could be used at home. The operations he prefers are cheap by comparison. “There is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy,” Biden wrote. Such missions are “sustainable militarily, economically, and politically.” Like his predecessors, Biden is likely to continue the longstanding U.S. approach to counter-terrorism as a kind of imperial policing.

Like Obama, Biden supports multilateral solutions to transnational threats. This is most clear with regards to his support for the Paris Climate Agreement, but the same logic applies to his approach to nuclear nonproliferation. Biden’s outspoken support for the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, rested on the belief that an international monitoring regime was the best way to block Iran’s pathway to the bomb and keep its ambitions in check. Meanwhile, the multinational nature of the agreement reduced the obvious need for a large U.S. military presence in the region. Constant international scrutiny replaced the need for visible threats against Tehran.

Biden’s approach to force posture also recalls the Obama years. It’s a simple formula: Fewer forces in the Middle East will allow more flexibility in East Asia. Biden supported the “pivot to Asia” and has signaled his desire to shore up relations with Asian allies and partners. At a minimum, this will mean returning to the traditional support for the U.S. presence in Japan and South Korea, and it might also lead to increasing the number of naval forces in the region. At the same time, Biden may be hesitant about ordering additional deployments, given concerns that the Navy is dangerously overextended. More reliance on legacy forces might also get in the way of the “big bets” on innovation favored by Michèle Flournoy, who is rumored to be secretary of defense-in-waiting. In the absence of large defense budget increases, Biden may prefer to husband resources and buy time for new technologies to mature.

In sum, Biden’s grand strategy is a curious amalgam of internationalism and restraint. Although his administration will remain committed to a large forward military presence, and to bolstering alliances and institutions, the president-elect is unlikely to take costly military interventions in support of liberal values. Instead, he will look for cost-effective methods for great-power competition, and to deal with transnational threats like nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

The Roles of Intelligence

Intelligence will be particularly to important Biden’s grand strategy, which seeks to maintain a favorable status quo while removing U.S. forces from conflict-prone regions and avoiding costly new wars. If this approach succeeds, it will do so by trading knowledge for power.

For example, intelligence will enable the United States to sharply reduce its presence in and around the Persian Gulf. Beginning in the late 1970s Washington sought “security and stability” in the Gulf, and policymakers looked for ways to prevent the rise of a dominant regional power that could exercise outsize influence on global politics by dominating oil exports. Today, however, the balance of capabilities makes this a near impossibility. There is no candidate for regional dominance because no one in the region possesses the ability to project military power very far for very long. As a result, a sizable U.S. military presence is not required for the purpose of conventional deterrence.

More plausible near-term concerns are that Iran could disrupt the flow of oil to market, or destabilize its rivals through political meddling and support for proxy groups. Intelligence is useful for preventing both scenarios. U.S. intelligence assets are well-positioned to spot signs that Iran was preparing a serious campaign against Gulf oil shipping. Meanwhile, intelligence may be useful in mapping links between Tehran and its regional proxies, and for revealing efforts to use them more aggressively. A large conventional military presence, by contrast, would do little to deter or prevent his kind of action.

Intelligence will also be vital for nuclear nonproliferation, including efforts to enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump walked away from the nuclear deal with Iran, but Biden has signaled that he intends to bring the United States back as an active party to the agreement. The deal includes extensive overt monitoring provisions. This frees up intelligence agencies to focus on other parts of the supply chain, and block any clandestine efforts to build a nuclear weapons program. The combination of overt and secret surveillance should give the administration confidence that the deal is still viable. The intelligence community has a very strong record assessing Iranian nuclear activities; returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will likely make it stronger.

Intelligence will enable Biden’s preferred form of counter-terrorism, a streamlined approach that trades conventional armies for special operations forces and drones. The results of this approach will depend in large part on the quality of intelligence. Rather than overwhelming armed groups through superior numbers, “small footprint” counter-terrorism uses precise intelligence to target individuals and disrupt their organizations. Financial information is also important for cutting off terrorists’ funding sources. Intelligence enables all of these efforts, saving conventional military forces for other tasks – or bringing them home.

What about the rise of China? Biden has already telegraphed a familiar approach: sustain the U.S. military presence, signal U.S. resolve, and commit to allies and partners in the region. Although these efforts will make headlines, intelligence efforts may prove to be more consequential. First, the competition with China in cyberspace will continue apace, even if the risk of a shooting war is low. This competition is largely an intelligence contest, a duel over information rather than a test of strength. Second, the United States may engage in clandestine signaling to disabuse China of the notion that it can operate in cyberspace with impunity. Such signals will bolster deterrence by undermining any hopes that China can win a war quickly through information attacks that inject confusion and sclerosis into U.S. operations.

Finally, cyber operations may prove to be useful for de-escalating crises, offering leaders on both sides a chance to do something without resorting to violence. Recent scholarship finds that great power rivals collude via covert action to avoid the costs of overt conflict. Intelligence agencies can simultaneously engage in subterranean diplomacy to reinforce covert messages and control the risk of war.

The danger, of course, is that successful cyber operations will cause the target to lash out in fear and frustration. This is a legitimate concern, and one that U.S. officials take seriously. Such scenarios rely on the belief that cyber operations have a good chance of succeeding, and indeed, they build on the longstanding assumption that attackers have the advantage in cyberspace. This assumption is problematic. Attacks on hardened and redundant military networks probably face long odds, not least because both sides will take steps to increase security during a period of rising diplomatic hostility. The more leaders in Beijing and Washington learn about cyberspace, the less confidence they may have in swift and decisive cyber attacks. Instead, they might come to see them as instruments of crisis management, rather than pathways towards inadvertent escalation.

No strategy survives first contact with the enemy, and no grand strategy survives past inauguration day. The next administration will evolve as events change and issues become more or less important. Nonetheless, Biden’s experience over the last two decades suggests consistent themes that will guide his approach: an abiding belief in internationalism, a skepticism about the use of force, and a lingering fear of squandering resources. At a glance, these beliefs seem contradictory. Committing to foreign allies means absorbing new commitments. Likewise, a forward military presence abroad raises the chance of costly conflict, even if those forces shift from one location to another. The Biden administration might discover that the effective use of intelligence is the best way to resolve these apparent contradictions, or at least prevent them from undermining its grand strategy.



Joshua Rovner is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University.       

Image: Gage Skidmore