IDF intelligence soldiers (illustrative).
(photo credit: IDF)
The Israeli tactical intelligence community for pulling off stunning operations of all sorts and preventing terrorist attacks is at an all-time high in the age of big data, but it is as challenged as ever regarding its ability to anticipate and influence global strategic trends and protect itself from attempted foreign manipulations.
That was a message that came from many speakers, including Intelligence Ministry director- general and former Mossad official Chagai Tzuriel, at last week’s intelligence community conference in Tel Aviv.
Can Iran’s general public be influenced toward regime change, and if not, where is Iran going on a range of issues? What is the future for Hezbollah, the Assad regime, elements of ISIS trying to reestablish themselves and the ongoing battle in the Middle East between a range of angry disenchanted groups and ideologies? What is the direction of US, Russia and China and how will changes inside those countries impact global and Israeli policy?
Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center chairman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dr. Zvi Shtauber noted that the CIA and other intelligence agencies had mistakenly predicted that Russia and China would become more democratic, missed the global terrorism wave and missed ISIS’s spectacular rise and its equally spectacular fall.
Where does that leave Israeli intelligence going forward? How can it better position itself to anticipate major global trends and influence them?
The Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center conference brought together a rare mix of current and former intelligence officials from the government, the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet to address these and other issues.
But it seems at this stage, the main focus is on sizing up and understanding the vast scale of the problem.
TZURIEL SAID that large, amorphous sectors of the general public who are frustrated with what globalization has done to their employment status, cost of living and way of life are striking back in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways that can influence the fate of nations and the world.
And yet with all of the massive big data that Israeli intelligence can muster, it has failed to understand these national and global publics and their impact, because “they are not us, so it is hard for us to understand them,” said Tzuriel.
He added that the impact of these weaker and sometimes more unstable sectors and the ability of foreign nations or groups to manipulate them is augmented by “the blurring of the lines between the physical and virtual world.”
“More people are living more in the virtual world, so they are more exposed to being impacted and manipulated from a very small number of actors with much more money and data – many publics do not even know they are being influenced,” he said.
Last year, former MI6 chief John Sawers said at a conference in Israel that one of the greatest threats to global security was portions of the US public’s anger at losing out from globalization and the pressure they were creating, through the Trump administration, for America to withdraw from leading the world and its alliances.
This past week, the US Senate Intelligence Committee made a bipartisan finding that Russia tried to use social media to sway the 2016 presidential election toward Trump (sidestepping the highly disputed question of what impact the effort had).
Tzuriel was not focused on the US specifically, but on Israel and Israeli allies in general.
He also said countries’ intelligence agencies “need to do more to prevent others from manipulating our publics.”
In terms of trying to better understand global trends and influence them, Tzuriel advocated broadening the disciplines that intelligence agencies use, including more academic experts and a more diverse groups of minds and voices.
Regarding defending Israel and it allies from foreign social media influence campaigns, he told The Jerusalem Post
after his speech that the mentality must be that the social media and cybersphere are not merely in a state of “a moderate war between wars, but in a constant campaign.”
No one at the conference had definitive answers, as the challenges are still relatively new and raw. Big data is great at locating targets, but not as much at devising responses to complex global trends.
The big question which no one knows the answer to is whether Israel’s and the West’s talented and high-powered intelligence communities can play catch-up fast enough to influence trends and defend themselves from the next foreign influence campaign wave.