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U.S. National Security Depends on American Tech and a Healthy Relationship with Risk

OPINION — In matters of national security, access to emerging technology is the great equalizer. The nature of national security and conflict is so closely intertwined with emerging tech that one is hardly distinct from the other. In fact, we have national security investment to thank for many of the modern amenities we take for granted today: GPS, the internet, lithium-ion batteries, the list goes on.

The outsized role of tech in intelligence collection and military action has never been more pronounced than it is today. Dual conflicts in Israel and in Ukraine, great power competition with the People’s Republic of China and Russia, and the unease that comes with an unstable regime in North Korea showcase the problems the US Government (USG) faces. Simply put, we’re looking at a veritable tinderbox of geopolitical conflicts and every country is looking to tech as its fire extinguisher…or its match.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the American tech industry is sitting squarely in the middle as governments and militaries jostle over capabilities which might give them the strategic advantage to persevere or to fight another day.

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Companies like Maxar Technologies with their first-in-class commercial satellite capabilities, have been critical to arming Ukrainian forces with the timely satellite imagery satellite imagery needed to defend against an invading (and far larger) Russian force. Space-X’s satellite internet service Starlink, has been a hot commodity in both the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas conflicts, offering satellite-enabled internet connectivity in areas of the world where traditional broadband is unable to reach.  Amazon Web Services, Oracle, Microsoft and Google Cloud have put the power and promise of cloud computing in the hands of American intelligence agencies which not only allows intelligence officials to store and analyze mountains of data but also puts the potential of quantum computing within reach.

It is an understatement to say that American tech companies have a unique opportunity to create deeper partnerships with the USG and have an outsized impact on advancing the interests of the free world. 

In many cases this relationship is already strong and thriving. U.S. tech is a critical enabler of the U.S. national security apparatus and enjoys a highly collaborative relationship with its counterparts in government. It has historically been – and continues to be – a symbiotic relationship which equally drives innovation and protects the national interest. We see this cooperation in efforts like the White House’s voluntary commitments on artificial intelligence (AI), in which tech industry leaders from Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, OpenAI, Nvidia, Salesforce, Palantir, and others signed-on to ensure the responsible development and use of AI.

But in order to reach the full potential of tech innovation and prepare our nation to deal with the problems of tomorrow, Congressional and Administrative leaders must be careful not to overregulate, stifle innovation, and make it even more difficult to do business in America or sell to the American government. Legislation like the research and development tax credit, which has passed the House and is poised for a vote in the Senate, are thoughtful first steps to encourage American innovation. On the other end, the tech community needs to treat the USG as a critical partner and not be afraid to take a stand on behalf of American interests.

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Having worked for nearly three decades on all sides of this equation, most recently as the Deputy Chief Operating Officer at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and before that as its Chief Information Officer, I can confidently say that the future of our nation is dependent on getting the public-private dynamic right.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the model we see in China where there is no sunlight between the companies in China and the Chinese Communist Party.  Some tension between our private and public sectors is healthy and has resulted in the outsized contributions to innovation and emerging technologies we’ve seen throughout history.  But when U.S. headlines day-in and day-out showcase the ongoing challenges between the USG and the tech community, I’m concerned we’re not focused enough on the main thing: out competing our foreign adversaries.

The USG and the tech community need to recognize that in the vast majority of instances everyone’s interests are aligned. This much is clear: technological innovation will continue to play a key role in the success of the national security community, as it has for centuries. It is critical that the U.S. Government and the tech industry work alongside one another to the continued benefit of both. Together both sides must lower the barriers to do business with each other, streamline the procurement processes, and realize that to truly be effective both sides must assume more risk – zero risk means nothing gets done. In an increasingly unstable world, this close relationship will be more important than ever. 

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals. 

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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John Edwards is President of the CIA Officer’s Memorial Foundation.  He retired from CIA as the Deputy Chief Operating Officer (D/COO) and played a central role in overseeing and integrating the work of CIA’s Directorates and Mission Centers, including directly supervising the Directorates of Digital Innovation, Science and Technology, and Support.


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