Episode 3

Jack Devine: Make U.S. intelligence 'smarter,' with tougher ground rules against China and Russia

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Key Points

  • New ground rules are needed to deal with Russia’s unparalleled intelligence operations
  • China has the economic strength to become a daunting long-term U.S. rival
  • Cyberwarfare is the new geopolitical battlefield
  • Between Trump and Biden, there is a much narrower gap on foreign policy than on domestic policy
  • Covert action may be needed to deter Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons
  • The next President will need to balance robust intelligence needs with limited resources

Required Conflicts Disclosures

At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. embraced a new period of prosperity and devoted little attention to Russia. Today, Russia has become our chief adversary and boasts intelligence capabilities “that can never be underestimated,” according to Jack Devine, a top spy master, former Head of Worldwide Operations for the CIA, and Founder of the Arkin Group LLC. 

The Russian Revival isn’t the only intelligence challenge facing our candidates. The next administration will also need to set new ground rules for cybersecurity, nuclear weapon development, and China relations. In fact, Devine predicts China will become our most formidable rival yet.

How we set policy in these areas will impact both U.S. economic and financial security, as both rising debt and trade disputes can have negative effects for the markets and investment performance.

Here are some key takeaways from our discussion with Devine:

Taming the Russian Revival

“The ingenuity of Russia’s intelligence operations is unrelenting,” says Devine. To manage the cybersecurity battleground, Devine says that it is imperative that we close the gap in our understanding of Russia’s intentions.

He believes both candidates should reset its relationship from a position of strength by re-establishing the “Moscow Rules,” a set of mutually-agreed upon ground rules between opposing parties that prevent cold wars from becoming hot wars.

“We are on a path where our relationship with China could look like the Cold War.”

- Jack Devine, 32-year veteran of the CIA and founder of the Arkin Group, LLC

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Preparing for cyberwarfare with China with rules and legislation

As cyberwarfare with China becomes the new geopolitical battlefield, Devine believes the next administration will need to introduce both legislation and rigorous ground rules to curb interference.

Once quite rudimentary, China’s intelligence gathering and spy recruitment skills have improved dramatically. It now has the capacity to collect and send tremendous amounts of data back to its servers and can recruit spies aggressively. Combined with its extraordinary economy and military, Devine says, China can exceed Russia’s potential to be a global world power, remarking that “we are on a path where our relationship with China could look like the Cold War.”

At a certain point, he envisions a world of “cybersaturation” when the U.S., China, and Russia will have equal capabilities and neutralize each other. In that scenario, Biden or Trump will need to set tougher agreements. “Whether we call them cyber rules or Beijing Rules, we need guidelines on how much we are going to interfere in each other's countries,” Devine says.

He predicts both of the candidates will pass legislation to support increased government cybersecurity defense and offense because cybersecurity has now become a bipartisan concern.

“Whether we call them cyber rules or Beijing rules, we need agreements on how much we will interfere in each other's countries.”

- Jack Devine, 32-year veteran of the CIA and founder of the Arkin Group, LLC

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Iran: Covert action may be needed

The next administration will need to carefully weigh the risks of using covert or other military actions against Iran, says Devine, because miscalculation can occur when one country believes the other won’t retaliate.

For example, although Iran negotiated and recalibrated its response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, miscalculation of retaliation is relative to every important political decision. 

Devine doesn’t necessarily advise either administration to rely on covert action to support regime change in Iran because its economy is weakening. However, the next President may need to consider it to limit the country from developing a weapon because any escalating situation may easily get out of hand.

Biden vs. Trump: Tighter gaps on foreign policy

Because there are so many overlapping geopolitical issues to address, Devine believes both candidates may rely on U.S. intelligence equally. But, there is a far narrower gap between Trump and Biden on foreign, rather than domestic policy.

For example, Trump may focus less on domestic issues than Biden, who may introduce more economic policies related to the coronavirus. From a foreign policy perspective though, there is a growing bipartisan consensus on the adversarial nature of the U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relationships.

Balancing robust intelligence and draining resources

Despite all of the geopolitical priorities with China, Russia, and Iran, Devine predicts there will be fewer resources for intelligence purposes, which poses risks for both the U.S. election and the candidates. He says the next administration needs to balance strained budgets with the need for robust defense/intelligence work.

“The next President will need to answer, 'What is the budget going to look like when we have to put ‘Humpty Dumpty’ back together again after the coronavirus?'” concludes Devine.

The discussion with Jack Devine is part of the series “Beyond the Ballot with Helima Croft.” To listen to the next virtual session live, or for more information about Helima Croft’s research report “Quick Take: Jack Devine/Covert Affairs” authored on August 13, 2020, please contact your RBC representative.

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