A New Policy on Setting Intelligence Priorities

03.22.21 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Shortly before the end of the Trump Administration in January 2021, then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe issued a directive that altered the process for preparing the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, or NIPF, stripping out limitations on signals intelligence collection from the previous policy.

The NIPF is perhaps the single most important administrative tool for managing the U.S. intelligence enterprise. It is used to determine priorities for intelligence collection and to allocate resources based on them.

The newly revised Intelligence Community Directive 204 on the National Intelligence Priorities Framework that was signed by DNI Ratcliffe on January 7, 2021 defines policy “for setting national intelligence priorities, translating them into action, and evaluating Intelligence Community (IC) responsiveness to them.”

It replaces the 2015 version of Intelligence Community Directive 204 that was issued in the Obama Administration by then-DNI James R. Clapper.

The new revision, which was published on the ODNI website last week, includes several noteworthy changes to the 2015 policy.

Most striking is the removal of all references to the Obama Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 28 that was issued in the wake of the Snowden disclosures. PPD 28 included new limitations on signals intelligence collection and directed that whenever possible, “feasible alternatives to signals intelligence should be prioritized.”

The role of PPD-28 in preparing the National Intelligence Priorities Framework was duly cited by DNI Clapper in his 2015 directive. But those citations were removed by DNI Ratcliffe in his January 2021 revision.

The reason for the move is unclear. Is it possible that PPD-28 was quietly rescinded by the Trump Administration and is no longer in effect? That is not the case, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“PPD-28 is still in effect and adhered to by the IC [Intelligence Community],” said Lauren Frost, ODNI communications officer. (PPD-28 was also cited in the 2015 Intelligence Community Directive 203 on Analytic Standards, which apparently remains in effect.)

But if so, the removal of all references to PPD-28 and its requirements from the new NIPF directive is unexplained.

The prior NIPF directive, pursuant to PPD-28, required consideration of “the risks of potential exposure of those [signals intelligence] activities to U.S. foreign policy, defense, commercial, economic, and financial interests, international agreements, privacy concerns, and the protection of intelligence sources and methods.”

In contrast, the newly revised directive requires consideration only of “the risks entailed in the potential exposure of intelligence priorities,” and it makes no mention at all of the potential exposure of intelligence activities.

The Ratcliffe directive adds a new provision to allow for “a releasable version of the national priorities matrix” to be shared with “Second Party partner nations” (also known as the other Five Eyes countries), namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Another new provision assigns “Intelligence Topic Experts” to help lead interagency development of intelligence priorities. Otherwise, most of the new directive consists of minor rewording of the previous version.

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The question of how to set intelligence priorities, which would be important at any time, arises at a moment when the definition of national security is increasingly open to reconsideration, especially outside of government.

Is national security mainly concerned with Iran nuclear weapons research and North Korean missiles and other adversarial threats or actions? Or does it also extend to the pandemic that resulted in more than half a million American deaths in the past year? How about climate change — is that a threat to national security? (The Department of Defense thinks so.)

What about the epistemic instability that seems to afflict more and more Americans who are inclined to give credence to ridiculous or obviously false beliefs? Does intelligence have anything to say about that? What would the intelligence community look like if it were retooled to address such concerns?

Intelligence is the one function of government that attempts to systematically discover what is likely to be true and what is deception or baseless speculation. So it would not be unreasonable to ask U.S. intelligence agencies to publish a regular, even daily stream of open source intelligence products that could help inform (not indoctrinate) the public and enrich deliberation on national security and foreign policy. Today, that is a distant prospect.

But it is not a totally unrealistic one. The FY2021 intelligence authorization act (in section 612) required the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to perform and to publish unclassified intelligence analyses concerning China together with an academic or non-profit institution. See “Spy agency to cast China’s clandestine military buildup into daylight” by Bill Gertz, Washington Times, March 21, 2021.

The FY2021 intelligence authorization act (in section 326) also called for development of a new strategy to guide open source intelligence, and for consideration of establishing a new, independent open source center. It did not address public access to open source intelligence products.