The Washington Post began a three-part series on “Top Secret America,” their detailed examination of the massive federal intelligence apparatus that has arisen as a result of the 9/11/01 attacks. Yesterday morning was Part One, a description (as best as possible) the size of the intelligence community, the numerous agencies that are a part of it, and how they have combined to create massive bureaucratic balkanization, far too much information for anyone or any group of ones to process properly, and a constant demand for “more” to fix the problem caused by too much in the first place. Interestingly enough, there was almost no discussion on what something of this size could do to American liberty – largely because by the time one finishes the piece, it isn’t clear that our intelligence community can do much of anything.
First up, though, one reassurance: it’s abundantly clear that nothing of vital importance to our security was compromised here (the Weekly Standard had Gabriel Schonfeld check that out), although given the main points gleaned from the WaPo piece, even if something was sent out that shouldn’t have been, it may take this crew weeks to figure it out:
Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
. . .
Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
That’s just two pages in (out of 16). Further along, Lt. Gen. John Vines (ret.), who “once commanded 145,000 troops in Iraq” had this to say, “The complexity of this system defies description.”
The WaPo then goes on to show how the intelligence balkanization played a role in the Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas Day almost-bombing. Some concern about the bureaucratic nature of hewing to conventional wisdom and “low hanging fruit” is thrown in for good measure.
Reassuring it is not.
There are a few things missing from the piece – namely historical context. However, the context would not have mitigated the impact, but amplified it.
In fact, the history of American intelligence is not only wrought with bureaucratic wars, balkanized offices, and counterproductive infighting; it was designed that way. One of the eye-opening revelations (for me, anyhow, in 1992) in Curt Gentry’s J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets was the motivation behind Harry S Truman’s resurrection of the World War II-era OSS as the new Central Intelligence Agency. Truman created the CIA to prevent Hoover’s FBI from dominating the American intelligence community. It only worked too well: Hoover and numerous CIA directors were at each others’ political throats for a quarter-century, and his death did nothing to slow down the bureaucratic bloodletting.
The other shocker (for me, at least in 1996) came from Jay Winik’s On the Brink - a history of the Reagan Adminstration’s foreign policy. One chapter centers around a CIA analyst who had uncovered a late 1970s bombshell – numerous and conclusive pieces of evidence showing Soviet cheating on arms control agreements. However, his CIA boss’s – following conventional wisdom, the wishes of the Carter Administration, and the bureaucratic impulses of their leaders and the State Department, hounded him out of the Agency and accused him of espionage.
The lessons learned was this: the intelligence community could suffer the same maladies as any other permanent bureaucracy – paper-pushing over performance, crushing internal dissent over confronting the enemy, and office power plays over operational success.
As bad as that is, the politics of 9/11 made things infinitely worse. One would expect the Bush Administration to push hard for the resources it felt was needed to defend America. However, the Democrats – eager to present themselves as tough without alienating their left-wing base – found a new way to thread the needle: i.e., redefining the war as one “fought” by law enforcement and intelligence. Thus, no one had the political incentive to take a hard look at the massive intelligence apparatus and wonder if there was any duplications or inefficiencies.
So, they were allowed to fester until the WaPo came calling.
Schonfeld thinks the paper’s headline was overblown, presenting the idea of the massive intelligence community as some kind of secret government. That would, however, imply (1) a much higher level of secrecy than the Post presents, and (2-something Schonfeld didn’t discuss) a far more efficient manner of doing things.
As it is, we have is a massively inefficient bureaucracy that just happened to have its problems shielded from view for far too long – long enough to become the closest thing to the mythical Denebian Clusterf**k. We can only hope that the WaPo inspires the Administration to shake up the whole thing so we can get a less expensive, more efficient, and more effective intelligence apparatus. We need it now more than ever.
Cross-posted (under a different title) to BD