Spying on the Future

The US Intelligence Community as Seers Without Sizzle

The year is 2010 and, yes, Saddam Hussein is gone and there are no
American troops in Iraq, but, as the report suggests, "the challenge
will be to see whether a modern, secular successor government emerges
that does not threaten its neighbors" -- especially since those dogged
Iraqis are back at work on their nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile,
the national security agenda of American policymakers, who face no
conventional military challenges, is dominated by five questions:
"whether to intervene, when, with whom, with what tools, and to what

Surveying the world in 2010, we find a Russia irredeemably in
economic decline, a China beset by too many internal problems to hope
for military dominance in Asia, and a North Korea so transformed that
military tensions have vanished from the Korean peninsula (along,
evidently, with the North Korean nuclear program). Oh, and those food
riots that swept the globe recently, they never happened. After all,
it's well known that food production has kept up with population
pressures, and energy production has been more than a match for global
energy needs. As for global warming? Never heard of it. On the bright
side, the key to the future is "international cooperation," led, of
course, by us truly.

An alternate universe from a missing Star Trek episode or that new sci-fi novel you haven't read yet? Not quite. Thanks to the best brains in the many agencies
that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community or IC, it's been possible
for me to venture into the future, just as our own world is being
shaken to its roots -- into the years 2010 and 2015, to be exact.

There, surprisingly enough, life is relatively calm and the United
States remains the preeminent Power of Powers. There, you aren't likely
to hear the words "deep recession" or "depression" on anyone's lips.

In that far perkier future our intelligence analysts sent me to, you
can exist forever and there will never be those four jets, box cutters,
and 19 hijackers. The Bush administration will never barge into the
world "unilaterally." The U.S. will not be renowned for torture
techniques or an offshore secret prison system of injustice, and
nothing will contravene then-Chairman of the Council of Economic
Advisers Ben Bernanke's 2005 assessment that soaring housing prices were due to "strong economic fundamentals."

In neither 2010 nor 2015 will anyone have heard of the collapse of
Lehman Brothers or the giant insurance company A.I.G. In neither year
will newspapers have headlines like "Worst Crisis Since '30s, With No End Yet in Sight." In neither will anyone know that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, conducting two bankrupting wars that refused to end.

Think of it as the blandest, tidiest, least-likely-to-occur future around. And it was even paid for with your tax dollars.

Planting the Stars and Stripes in Future Soil

In a world where shock has repeatedly been the name of the game, where
tall towers fall in clouds of toxic ash, investment houses disappear in
the blink of an eye, and a black man is the Democratic Party's
candidate for president of the United States, the American intelligence
community has been straining to imagine a future without surprises or
discontinuities. As its experts summed the matter up in 1997, "Genuine
discontinuities -- sharp nonevolutionary breaks with the past -- are
rare, and our focus is on evolutionary change."

Lucky is the country that didn't bet its foreign policy on that bit of
intelligence wisdom. Of course, in the long decade of hubris, from the
Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 (something American intelligence
neither predicted nor expected) to the moment American troops entered
Baghdad in April 2003, it seemed obvious enough in Washington that a
generational Pax Americana was settling over the world.

a result, the futures the IC's analysts produced back then were
remarkable mainly for their inability to imagine what was stirring
under the surface of the obvious. As a result, when you visit those
futures, you're not likely to have the urge to throw away your Arthur
Clark or Isaac Asimov or Philip Dick or William Gibson classics. But
maybe you'll still be curious, as I was, to know what that
"community's" top minds missed when they peered ahead. Think of it as a
window into the limits of our intelligence services when they tried to
grasp the real nature of U.S. power by forecasting the future.

What's strange is that the distant future was once the province of
utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp fiction writers, oddballs,
visionaries, even outright nuts, but not government intelligence
services. Peering into it was, at its best, a movingly strange individual
adventure of the imagination, whether you were reading Edward Bellamy
or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin or H.G. Wells, George
Orwell or Aldous Huxley. That was, of course, before the Pentagon and
allied outfits began planning
for the weaponry of 2020, 2035, and 2050; before war turned nuclear and
so, with the exception of two cities in 1945, could only be "fought" in
think tanks via futuristic scenario writing; before names like
Complex 2030, Vision 2020, UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] Roadmap 2030
were regularly affixed to government programs. In fact, the U.S.
government has been planting the Stars and Stripes deep in territory
previous left to sci-fi dreamers for quite a while.

In the process, regularly analyzing the distant future has become
almost as much the duty of the 18 agencies of the U.S. Intelligence
Community as doing National Intelligence Estimates on Iran. Ever since
the 1990s, they have been hard at work preparing committee-made futures
that simply won't happen. To judge by their work, they are a community
of seers without sizzle, and yet the next of their fantasy futures, for
the distant year 2025, is about to be made public.

Predicting America's Diminishing Power

Every few years the National Intelligence Council
(NIC) is mandated to provide "'over the horizon' estimates of broader
trends at work in the world." Just in case you've never heard of the
NIC, it describes itself as "a center of strategic thinking within the
U.S. Government, reporting to the Director of National Intelligence
(DNI) and providing the President and senior policymakers with analyses
of foreign policy issues that have been reviewed and coordinated
throughout the Intelligence Community."

Sometime in the 1990s, its analysts embarked on a project, released in
1997, called Global Trends 2010, a best-guesstimate about the nature of
our world 13 years hence. In 2000, Global Trends (GT) 2015 came out,
followed in 2004 by GT 2020.

As the 2020 project proudly described the process, the IC "consulted
experts from around the world in a series of regional conferences to
offer a truly global perspective. We organized conferences on five
continents to solicit the views of foreign experts..." In other words, no
prospective stone was left prospectively unturned to keep top U.S.
policymakers up to speed.

Recently, this Washington Post headline caught my eye: "Reduced Dominance Is Predicted for U.S." As the Post's Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus noted, the latest of the NIC's reports, Global Trends 2025,
due out this December, was previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, "the
U.S. intelligence community's top analyst." Officially, he's the Deputy
Director of National Intelligence for Analysis as well as the Chairman
of the National Intelligence Council. The report is already supposedly
being briefed to presidential candidates McCain and Obama.

Indeed, talking to the 2008 Intelligence and National Security Alliance
Analytic Transformation Conference, Fingar praised the IC for its job
restoring "confidence in the product" (a not-so-subtle reference to
what the Bush administration did to its reputation back in 2002-2003)
and hyped the IC's "17 years of forecasting and scenario building." He
then previewed the upcoming "product" on the futuristic intelligence
block, "intended to shape the thinking of [the] new administration,"
and here was his prediction of America's fate as 2025 approaches:

"[T]he U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that
American dominance will be much diminished over this period of time...
the overwhelming dominance that the United States has enjoyed in the
international system in military, political, economic, and arguably,
cultural arenas is eroding and will erode at an accelerating pace with
the partial exception of military. But part of the argument here is
that by 15 years from now, the military dimension [that] will remain
the most preeminent will be the least significant..."

I'd have to guess that NIC members are, at this very moment, doing a
little rewriting on this issue as the known world descends around our
projected ears. Anyway, just how useful was Fingar's "news," even
before our financial system plunged into the maw?

Let's face it, if the Post headline had said: "America [or China, or a clique of petro-states] Predicted to Rule World in 2025" that
might have been news. But if you've been paying the slightest attention
to your daily paper, Fingar's speech offered a hint of a future hardly
more illuminating than a headline saying, "Water predicted to remain in
Indian Ocean in 2025."

Birthed by the T. Rex of global intelligence combines, his revelation
represents, at best, a hen's egg of knowledge. Admittedly, such a
prediction might have taken real insight back in 1997 when the U.S. was
riding high, and only a handful of declinist scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein were considering the possibility
that American power was not on a path to new heights. But in 2008, did
anyone really need costly conferences on five continents to imagine a
future in which that power would be in decline, a forecast that is now
a commonplace of bestselling book titles and could have been read at websites like this one years ago?

The Future Behind Us

Still, I couldn't resist zipping back to 1997 and then 2000 just to get
a sense of what -- when Washington was riding high -- the IC thought
lay ahead in 2010 and 2015.

Three years after it made its 1997 findings public, the NIC's
analysts saw nothing but signs of the increasing dominance of American
power in the global future. Like the new administration of that moment,
they were bullish on America, so much so that they even critiqued the
NIC's seers of 1997 as weak-kneed on the U.S.: "The effect of the
United States as the preponderant power is introduced in GT 2015. The
US role as a global driver has emerged more clearly over the past four
years, particularly as many countries debate the impact of 'US
hegemony' on their domestic and foreign policies."

While, in 2000, there seemed no serious obstacles to the growth of
American power 15 years in the future, poor Russia remained a declinist
state which, fortunately, would "continue to lack the resources to
impose its will," and China faced "an array of political, social, and
economic pressures that will increasingly challenge the regime's
legitimacy, and perhaps its survival." And here was yet more splendid
news from the NIC's point of view: "The global economy, overall, will
return to the high levels of growth reached in the 1960s and early
1970s." Even better, "[i]nternational cooperation will continue to
increase through 2015." (Evidently, they forgot to brief top Bush
administration officials on that particular prediction!)

Despite some discussion of non-state actors, loose nukes, and a
potential "trend toward greater lethality in terrorist attacks" --
after all, two American embassies in Africa and the USS Cole
had by then been devastated -- the IC saw no global wars on terror
ahead. Terrorism was an outlier in a heady world of "globalization"
that, in 2015, was remarkably sunny-side up when it came to us.

As with any document by committee, many of the report's reigning
predictions were carefully qualified elsewhere in the document, a
familiar kind of cover-your-butt-ism in which you bravely predict the
obvious -- and (just in case) its opposite. The exuberant U.S. economy,
to take a typical example, was also described as "vulnerable to a loss
of international confidence in its growth prospects that could lead to
a sharp downturn, which, if long lasting, would have deleterious
economic and policy consequences for the rest of the world." There was
even an appendix ("Four Alternative Global Futures") that offered
modest scenarios in which U.S. power might "wane" somewhat, but here
was the IC's money paragraph for 2015:

"Experts agree that the United States, with its
decisive edge in both information and weapons technology, will remain
the dominant military power during the next 15 years. Further
bolstering the strong position of the United States are its
unparalleled economic power, its university system, and its investment
in research and development -- half of the total spent annually by the
advanced industrial world. Many potential adversaries, as reflected in
doctrinal writings and statements, see US military concepts, together
with technology, as giving the United States the ability to expand its
lead in conventional warfighting capabilities."

Sigh... In the future that's now behind us, we know just where that sort of thinking led.

By 2004, of course, things were beginning to go sour in Bushworld, and so the 2020 study had a somewhat more dystopian
edge to it. (It could pose the question, "U.S. Unipolarity - How Long
Can It Last?" even if the answer was: a long time.) And finally, this
December, it seems, the "waning" of U.S. power will make it, just a tad
late, out of the appendices and into the bloodstream of the future.

Handmaidens of Delusion

What's undeniably fascinating about these futuristic exercises is the
degree to which they reflect the limits of the world of the present as
seen from Washington; they reflect, that is, just what Washington has
been (and largely still remains) incapable of grasping about the nature
of power -- and danger -- on this planet. In this way, the IC's
analysts remained handmaidens to delusion, not just when it came to
foreign powers, but when it came to our own country. The Global Trends
reports will remain significant documents for future historians who
want to chart just how glacially slow was Washington's realization that
the collapse of Soviet power didn't actually mean American power was
destined to be transcendent on Earth.

In its predictions, it's clear that the IC had little better luck
getting its agents embedded in the future than it did getting them
inside al-Qaeda or into Iran. Not surprisingly, given what we know
about the bureaucratic morass that is American intelligence, the GT
reports have all the faults of intelligence by committee and
negotiation -- which is why H.G. Wells, Arthur Clark, Isaac Asimov,
George Orwell, and others, who caught something of the strangeness of
possible futures, would never have had a chance in hell of succeeding
in careers in the IC. Wells's Martians with their poison gas and flying
machines, Orwell's Big Brother with his "memory hole," and Huxley's
"feelies" would have been left on the negotiating room floor. Far too
quirky. Far too many "discontinuities" involved for the IC.

Better to forecast what the people you brief already believe, raised to
the highest predictive power and squared, and skip the oddballs with
their strange hunches, the sorts who might actually have a knack for
recognizing the shock of the future lurking in the present. Don't pay any mind,
for that matter, to FBI agents reporting the truly strange in the
present -- like, say, "a 33-year-old French citizen of Moroccan
descent" at a flight school who wants to learn how to fly a commercial
jet, but not how it takes off or lands.

What the Global Trends documents represent, then, is not a deep dive
into the mysteries of the future, but a series of belly flops by an
unbearably obese IC into a barely grasped present. Let 18 intelligence
outfits proliferate and one thing is guaranteed: in some future, maybe
even tomorrow, no matter how powerful you are, you won't know what hit

If I were the next president, I might prefer to skip the IC, spend a
few nights with a little science fiction, peer into the darkness,
muster some commonsense, and take a wild guess or two.

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