Cracking the mysteries of intelligence

Ex-defense intelligence chief breaks down challenges from Iran to ISIS to China, Russia in cyber and space, to the quantum computing arms race.

A woman walks past the mural showing U.S. flag with barbed wire and the Statue Of Liberty with skull face in Tehran, Iran June 25, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman walks past the mural showing U.S. flag with barbed wire and the Statue Of Liberty with skull face in Tehran, Iran June 25, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the seminal events that influenced David Shedd to go into a career in the intelligence and national security arena was the November 1979 to January 1981 Iranian hostage crisis carried out by the revolutionary regime in Tehran, which had just overthrown the shah.
DAVID SHEDD, a former US Defense Intelligence Agency chief and CIA veteran. (Courtesy)DAVID SHEDD, a former US Defense Intelligence Agency chief and CIA veteran. (Courtesy)
“I watched the daily count of the number of days in which the United States was being humiliated on a worldwide stage. The failed US hostage rescue also had a profound impact on me. I wanted to work purposefully to ensure that such a crisis did not happen again,” the former US Defense Intelligence Agency chief and CIA veteran said in a recent interview with the Magazine.
“And if such a crisis surfaced again,” he wanted to make sure “we would have the capabilities and capacity to respond effectively to the crisis.”
Shedd said he has always had “an insatiable curiosity to determine how events in the national security space unfold and pursuing the why behind those events.”
He added that he has also felt a strong pull of “a call to action. It is not sufficient to just understand the issues, but it is critical to develop options for decision-makers for addressing an impending crisis or getting out of a crisis once in it.”
Moving into the present challenges coming from Iran, the Magazine asked Shedd to give his view on what would be the point of no return for the ayatollahs’ nuclear program.
IRANIANS CARRY a cutout of US President Donald Trump and an image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, on February 11. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters)IRANIANS CARRY a cutout of US President Donald Trump and an image of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, on February 11. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters)
Shedd responded, “If and when a political decision is reached to break out [to having a nuclear weapons capability]. There will be lots of technical issues which must still be addressed.”
On one hand, he asserted, “I don’t believe they have ever stopped research and development or weapons progress. But they were held back because there wasn’t a political decision by [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to break out.”
In fact, he said that one of his objections to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran was that Iran received substantial sanctions benefits even though it was at a point before even deciding to break out.
Of course, striking the right balance regarding Iran’s intentions is a tough judgment call.
A VIEW of Iran’s water nuclear reactor at Arak, at the end of 2019.  (WANA via Reuters)A VIEW of Iran’s water nuclear reactor at Arak, at the end of 2019. (WANA via Reuters)
He emphasized that Israel, the US and other threatened countries could not let the clock tick down until the Islamic Republic would be expected to slowly rehearse all of the activities needed to fire a nuclear missile.
“The idea of waiting for a Manhattan-style project, waiting for perfect calculations, is a little bit silly with a North Korea or an Iran that could be ‘prepared enough’” to publicly declare its weapons capabilities or use them.
The former intelligence chief praised US President Donald Trump for “the unpredictability which he throws at Iran to get it off of its game. What will they do if he is reelected? For all that everyone says about Trump’s [problematic and unorthodox] decision-making process and about Trump himself – the Iranians have uncertainty about how he may respond” in a number of scenarios.
Shedd noted Trump’s recent “orders to shoot and take out these [Iranian] boats if they get too close is a case in point. They don’t really know what he’s going to do next,” signaling that this changeability sometimes forces Tehran to play its cards less aggressively, out of fear of pushing Trump too far.
KURDISH FEMALE fighters of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over Islamic State, in Qamishli, Syria, in March 2019. (Rodi Said/Reuters)KURDISH FEMALE fighters of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over Islamic State, in Qamishli, Syria, in March 2019. (Rodi Said/Reuters)
“That is all part of the challenge for the Iranian regime in trying to interpret Trump’s next steps. They will have to go back to some calculations about [his possible] reelection in November, and then they will have four more years of the Pompeo doctrine [the secretary of state’s determination that Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria is not categorically illegal] squeezing them. Clearly, that is having an impact,” he said.
ANOTHER QUESTION discussed with Shedd was to what extent Israel has the military capacity to preemptively strike Tehran’s nuclear program on its own so as to block it from obtaining a weapon.
He did not want to give a definitive opinion about Israel’s capabilities, but stated, “Israel could probably get to Natanz [nuclear facility], but I don’t know about getting to other secret sites,” adding that it was unclear whether multiple medium-sized bombs used by the IDF, smaller than a US bunker buster – a possibility raised by the Magazine – could destroy the underground Fordow facility by causing a cave in.
However, he said that either way, the main question would remain, “Are you getting the whole program? Is it enough of a message to Iran that this is only the beginning” of strikes on the program, if Iran would try to proceed to a bomb?
A WORKER fixes damage to a building from an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on November 20, 2019. Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in response to rocket fire the prior day in the Golan Heights. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)A WORKER fixes damage to a building from an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on November 20, 2019. Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in response to rocket fire the prior day in the Golan Heights. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)
“Another important question,” he said, “is when do the Saudis with MBS [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] turn to the Pakistanis in a turnkey kind of arrangement for delivery of [ready-made] nuclear weapons, if they think Iran has made a political decision to proceed?”
SWITCHING TO the dangers of a resurrected ISIS in Syria, Shedd predicted, “Regarding a full return of ISIS to caliphate level, I don’t see it. I do see a long, protracted, frozen conflict in which there are warring parties” continuing to ravage disputed areas.
Falling back briefly on his native Spanish from Bolivia and then Chile, where he grew up from 1962 to 1972, he said Syria is “muy complicado [very complicated].” He pointed to an absurd number of geopolitical forces wrestling for power and land in Syria, including: “Iran, which has used allies like Hezbollah to keep a low-intensity conflict going... Russia, which isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as well as Turkey and the Assad regime,” all of which have either open or potential tensions with each other.
In trying to set US goals, he said “I don’t know what victory or peace look like in a country like Syria today, because there are so many adversaries.”
RUSSIA’S SOYUZ-FG booster rocket with the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft for the new International Space Station crew, mounted at the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, last July. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Pool via Reuters)RUSSIA’S SOYUZ-FG booster rocket with the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft for the new International Space Station crew, mounted at the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, last July. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Pool via Reuters)
“There is no way out of the frozen conflict in the current environment. That will allow for ISIS to have some space for some resurgence in ungoverned areas, but not a resurgence to a caliphate,” he bemoaned.
Regarding Israeli interests in Syria, he said Jerusalem should not even try “to solve the Syria problem,” but rather should be laser-focused on “not letting the yellow flag of Hezbollah or the Iranians to collaborate in southern Syria – the situation should be managed rather than trying to fix it.”
Part of his pessimism in Syria dates back to his expertise in South America, having grown up in Chile and served in intelligence posts that gave him an insider view of developments in Venezuela and Cuba.
Regarding growing up in Chile, he said, “I was 11 years old when the Marxist Popular Unity candidate Salvador Allende Gossens became president. I was very interested in all the events that led up to that election, the reaction in Washington, and the close relationship between Allende and then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
“I was struck by the intersection of geopolitical events unfolding at a very local level, as the Popular Unity members continued to careen further and further to the Left with land expropriations, price controls, massive protests,” he remarked.
“My deep curiosity drove me to be fascinated as to why Washington – president [Richard] Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger – were so interested and critical as to what was happening in distant Chile.”
This was another inspiration for his career in intelligence.
REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE (R-Texas) testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing in Washington on May 5. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE (R-Texas) testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing in Washington on May 5. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)
From all of these experiences, he said, “frozen conflicts go to the bad guys because they can live without a good result. Meanwhile, we are concerned about human rights, immigration, refugees. The good guys try to do something about a conflict, but the bad guys don’t care.”
SHEDD ALSO analyzed challenges posed by China and Russia in the 21st century going forward.
He said the US, in its stance toward Beijing and Moscow, has really “returned to great power competition or near-peer competition.”
Some of the areas of competition “include the South China Sea and South Asia. In space, they are significant players in anti-satellite technology along with denial of service attacks. Russia plays in that in geosynchronous [a higher orbit] as well as low orbit. What was fiction 20 years ago isn’t that far-fetched now with competition in space.”
“In the cyber arena, China has been preparing, extracting and intruding to go after property rights and data. They have made an enormous investment in 5G [a new kind of mobile network predicted to be the backbone of a wide array of new technologies] and [Chinese telecommunications giant] Huawei – and this is extraordinarily significant,” he said.
He predicted that in the 2020 US presidential election “there is no reason to expect a diminution of all of the [Russian] cyber tool efforts to promote fake news and manipulate people’s views so as to disrupt the elections.”
Furthermore, he said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is feeling emboldened by the combination of Russia’s effective cyber capabilities against the US and by Moscow’s success, compared to the US, in influencing the outcome of the conflict in Syria.
“The ability to mount asymmetric warfare by those two nation-states [Russia and China] is very high. How does the intelligence community respond? How is it performing? So great power competition is expanding into the cyberspace and in counterintelligence – with all of this in a multipolar world, not the old bipolar one.”
He noted, “Keep an eye on the non-state actors who will be part of the challenges of the 2020s and beyond along with China and Russia.”
SECURITY PERSONNEL accompany a 5G-enabled autonomous vehicle, installed with a camera filming blooming cherry blossoms for an online live-streaming session, inside Wuhan University, Hubei province, China, on March 17. (China Daily via Reuters)SECURITY PERSONNEL accompany a 5G-enabled autonomous vehicle, installed with a camera filming blooming cherry blossoms for an online live-streaming session, inside Wuhan University, Hubei province, China, on March 17. (China Daily via Reuters)
Questioned whether the US might lose to China in the latest technological cyber arms race, he responded, “That is a distinct possibility. The repressive regime of the Communist Chinese Party controls its population of 1.3 billion people with technology like the massive use of facial recognition, artificial intelligence, machine learning... absolutely, they are highly threatening to overtake us.”
One particularly revolutionary area of technological competition, which Shedd said he is following, is the race to crack quantum computing.
Quantum computers use ones and zeros to process information just like today’s computers, but they move from the atomic world to the subatomic particles world. At that point, subatomic particles, or qubits, can exist in multiple states and perform multiple functions at the same time.
If the “brain” of today’s computers invests most of its energy passively to sift through which task to focus on, quantum computers will be able to operate as if they have multiple brains to use far more (estimates are millions of times more and faster) of their computing potential actively.
“I follow quantum developments very closely. There is a mistake people are making. They think it’s linear to computers today. It is called quantum because it will be a quantum leap well beyond almost the imaginable,” said Shedd.
“What it does to encryption and decryption – it will have an enormous impact on the protection of nation-states’ interests and friend and allies in terms of who gets there first.”
Nations’ and institutions’ “ability to protect secrets will be radically changed because of an increased ability to decrypt information in real time. To that end, it will be an extraordinary, groundbreaking challenge to define what you want to most protect.”
On the downside, he said that almost all of the world’s banking information could be at risk, but that there are huge potential upsides for using quantum computing in the field of medicine.
“I predict, within the next three years,” that quantum computing will be cracked, “given the dedicated efforts in academia, research institutions and the money the Chinese and we are putting up against it.”
He noted that Cambridge Quantum Computing – which says it has over 60 scientists in England, the US and Japan working on rolling out new ideas for companies like Total, IBM and Honeywell – “are very far advanced for commercial purposes.”
Moreover, there could be multiple stages in the quantum computing race, Shedd elaborated.
“When we say we cracked it, it may be a 1.0 version, which may eventually grow to a 5.0 capability. When it is cracked, it doesn’t mean that on the first day you will already be able to do everything I suggested with it.”
Shedd even noted that quantum computing could help humanity better prepare for and combat future pandemics.
Commentators on quantum computing have noted it can enable the mapping of much larger molecules than could be dreamed of using today’s technology – which means far quicker research toward vaccines.
THIS ALSO raises the profound ways the corona crisis has changed and will continue to change the field of intelligence.
Shedd said the coronavirus has thrown a simultaneous trifecta of major challenges at the intelligence community: physical threats; economic threats; and data monitoring and management in general.
“The intelligence community is having to react similarly to the way it did in the post-9/11 environment... then compounded by Iraq,” in terms of the scope of the physical threat and continued danger posed by corona.
The second leg of the trifecta is the corona-caused economic recession, which he compared to the 2007-2009 recession in terms of the severity of its impact.
ONE OF Google’s Quantum Computers in its Santa Barbara, California, lab in October 2019. (Google/Handout via Reuters)ONE OF Google’s Quantum Computers in its Santa Barbara, California, lab in October 2019. (Google/Handout via Reuters)
He stated, “There will be increasing demands for economic intelligence and for understanding foreign countries’ policy makers in terms of the ebbs and flows of the financial markets.”
Predicting that the economic crisis would be long and drawn out, he said there would not be a sudden immediate recovery, as the whole world endures “a recession of significant proportions.”
Regarding the third leg, Shedd said the intelligence community would change its view of pandemics to invest far more in future readiness. They would use levels of data analytics and predictive modeling, which did not exist the last time that national security experts took a wider look at the issue.
“The issues aren’t new, but the exponential growth in that area will be tantamount to a new way of doing business,” he commented.
One specific issue regarding data that is “throwing the intelligence community for a real loop is the staying-at-home issue. Usually, there is a workplace environment, and there are special challenges with doing classified work at a distance.”
“We are ill-prepared to deal with the absence of a physical presence for classified work from a distance. That will dramatically change the way business is done in a classified environment, so there will be an ability to protect classified data in a home environment, if you are not at your usual location,” he said.
Shedd explained that until now there was simply an assumption that classified data stayed at work, such that resources did not need to be expended to protect classified data at intelligence officials’ homes, since the data were not permitted to be there.
The former top intelligence official also still has his hand in part of the game, as he has helped John Ratcliffe prepare for his recent confirmation hearing to be director of national intelligence (DNI), where Shedd used to work.
While some controversy already delayed Ratcliffe once, he said Ratcliffe would be well poised to give “the intelligence community what it desperately needs in terms of having a leader on top who brings the community’s resources to bear on the most challenging problems in some kind of unity of effort.”
“The DNI is not director of operations,” he clarified, but, rather, is the conductor of “an orchestra approach in which the DNI does have authority of the intelligence community in terms of budgets, long-term needs... and with tremendous authority over information sharing.”
“Ratcliffe had a distinguished record as a prosecutor in Texas. He understands the domestic side of intelligence from prosecuting the counterterror cases he was involved in,” he asserted.
After decades of service in institutions where key national security decisions were being made, Shedd is a rare bridge between understanding past and future challenges.