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Needles, Haystacks and Dollars

Nov. 25, 2012 - 03:41PM   |  
By MARK TESTONI   |   Comments
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“The future ain’t what it used to be,” as Yogi Berra wisely observed. There was a time when the goal of most intelligence agencies was to steal that one secret that would reveal an enemy’s intentions. The most difficult challenge was to crack a code, snatch a document or capture a signal that would expose the plans of rival superpowers, rogue nations or terrorists.

Today, there is a very good chance we already have the critical intelligence that reveals what our enemies are thinking — we just can’t see it in the blizzard of information in front of our eyes. While collection remains a huge challenge, in many cases our ability to collect intelligence has outstripped our ability to analyze it quickly. In Internet time, we often have only minutes — not hours, days or weeks — to interpret and act nimbly.

It would be bad enough if the task was simply to stay ahead of the data avalanche that is threatening to bury us. But it is exacerbated by a second problem: money. The United States’ fiscal challenges and political divisions over how to resolve them are creating major uncertainties in many national security programs. The election returned the same three “legs” — Democratic White House, Democratic Senate and Republican House — to the budget process “stool.” It is unclear if these parties can assemble a stable, lasting deal.

Both sides seem to agree that we must avoid the impending calamity of sequestration. Republicans and Democrats have found common ground on national security matters in the past, but simply hoping for a good outcome is not a wise strategy. And one thing is certain: Substantial budget cuts are coming, via the meat ax of sequestration or some other blunt tool.

In a perfect world, decisions about how a great country invests its precious national security resources should be shaped by the actual dangers faced abroad, not by political games at home. And that brings up a third challenge. Adding to the problems of too much information and not enough money to deal with it, what are our priorities? In a world full of threats, where should we focus?

In recent years, we’ve seen a shift away from Europe and toward Asia, prompted by our growing financial and economic co-dependency with China and simmering tensions in parts of the region. In the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States is trying to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as new crises are erupting in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Mali.

At a recent event hosted by my company, former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Mike Hayden said the leading threats to U.S. security included a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, the ultraviolent narco-traffickers in Mexico, cyber terrorists of the rogue and state-sponsored variety, and the diaspora of radical Islamic terrorists.

We seem to be collecting more and more haystacks in which intelligence needles must be found. At a time of shrinking resources, where should the government place its bets? If the government is to address the triple challenges of too much data, too few resources and too many targets, it will need considerable help from industry.

Those of us in the private sector who provide information technology to U.S. military and intelligence customers will need to step up our game, so that the nation’s ability to analyze and act on threat data evolves to meet our needs. Collaboration in acquisition, resourcing and analysis is key.

In light of all these factors, IT support for U.S. national security needs to become much more powerful, agile and flexible. We need solutions that empower front-line analysts, operators and planners with actionable insights. Our solutions must be faster to deploy, easier to use, interoperable and secure across thousands of platforms at all levels. And we must collect, analyze and keep information secure for the government while protecting the privacy rights of everyone in the data stream.

Public-private collaboration must be leveraged even more. Since 9/11, we’ve made strides along these lines, and commercial sources can be tapped even further. For example, many private sector companies run de facto intelligence and security operations to protect their intellectual property, systems and people. Many state and local governments do, too. New York City operates a world-class intelligence arm. We need to bring together all of these inter-related actors to share information and concentrate our forces for success.

Most important, in an era of extreme budget pressures, IT solutions for national security will have to be more affordable, with business models and cost projections that can be relied upon. The era of long-term, expensive projects with locked-in vendors chasing ever-changing objectives is over. Government IT buyers are looking for significant cost savings and alternative approaches that make it faster and easier to innovate and save money. Because it’s not just a matter of money — it’s about protecting our national security and our troops.

Trying to solve the complex and interrelated problems of new security challenges, “big data” streams and shrinking budgets present leaders with a Rubik’s Cube of immense proportions. But getting past the twists and turns to arrive at the right kinds of solutions could not be more important.


Mark Testoni, president of SAP National Security Services, an independent U.S. subsidiary of global software company SAP.

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