Human rights literally disappeared from former President Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) when he dropped the term from the position once known as the special assistant to the President for multilateral affairs and human rights.
President Biden has appointed a new coordinator for democracy and human rights in the NSC. This firmly reestablishes the issue of human rights as a national security concern and communicates that the administration will focus on human rights as a foreign policy issue. Given this renewed focus, the Intelligence Community (IC) can and should take actions to support the NSC and administration on human rights intelligence.
Some may question whether the IC should focus on human rights. Even beyond the moral component of caring about human rights, there are very practical national security reasons to focus on human rights. Human rights abuses are often indications of other threats and can tell analysts and decision makers much about the stability of nations. There are also real soft power stakes to human rights abuses from information operations to support to alliance building to international organization negotiations.
But, can the IC support human rights intelligence? It can and it already does. Tearline, for example, is a program by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) to share intelligence information with non-profits to support their research, including on human rights. For national security issues, the IC can use classified capabilities, from spy satellites to human intelligence sources, to provide even more detailed human rights intelligence to decision makers. Probably the biggest support that the IC can provide is professional all-source intelligence analysis to connect the dots between sparse information and what is really going on. Classified sources and the ability to connect the dots are increasingly necessary given the extent to which authoritarian regimes like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) go to censor and hide human rights abuses.
But to fully engage on human rights issues, the IC would need to become even more comfortable working with open-source information, since the vast majority of reporting on human rights is done in the open by non-profits. But to truly work with such non-profits, the IC must rebuild trust, as there are many who see the IC as having been complicit in human rights abuses. Intelligence community leaders must be open to such concerns and make real efforts to rebuild trust with the public.
Importantly, the use of classified intelligence sources and methods may make the information itself classified. This could create significant ethical dilemmas for officials in terms of what to share with the public. However, the IC should welcome this tension. Treating human rights as an intelligence issue will force the IC to come to terms with its own need for transparency.
The atrocities occurring in Xinxiang against the Uighur people by the CCP provide an example of how the IC can support human rights issues. It’s been estimated that well over one million Uighurs have been interned in what amount to concentration camps in Xinxiang by the CCP. Additional human rights abuses have been reported, everything from forced labor to beatings.
China has used its strict authoritarian controls over travel, the media and Internet to make it very difficult to report on what is really going on in Xinxiang. Collecting information in authoritarian nations is what the IC does best. Classified satellites and human intelligence sources could be used to better understand what is going on, while all source analysts connect the dots. This intelligence reporting could be used to better inform China policy and to support outreach to allies with similar concerns. In some cases, the intelligence could be declassified to provide better information to the global public about the CCP’s atrocities.
If the IC is to focus on human rights, it requires customers and budget. The Biden administration has done something great by creating that customer in the NSC. The administration could go even further by issuing an Executive Order to the IC to focus more effort on human rights. Intelligence community leaders will need to translate administration focus into requirements, budgetary choices and decisions to set up new offices, train and equip intelligence officers and devote collection resources.
To really succeed and build an IC human rights capability, Congress must act to provide the funding necessary for the IC to devote the resources it will need.
Anthony Vinci, former associate director and chief technology officer of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).