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The spy system that bankrupted me September 11, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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The United States “should level off, if not cut back, on intelligence.” Not what you’d expect to hear from former congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission.  But he’s right.  The charge to Congress and the administration this September 11th is “less!” – less structure, less data, and less money.

The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, inspired by the 9/11 Commission’s findings, was great politics.  “Connecting the dots” – the intelligence community version of “just do it” or “have it your way” – shouldn’t be a problem with an entirely new Director of National Intelligence and National Counterterrorism Center.  And, in the meantime, throwing money at the problem helped Congress avoid choices about priorities and the charges of neglect that always follow from those slighted.

So our response so far to the September 11th attack has been “more!” – more structure, data, and money.  The problem is that collecting dots isn’t the same as connecting them.  We are now awash in intelligence – if the tidal wave of tidbits arriving every day can be so called – but still insufficiently able to understand it.

Russell Travers, a deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), gave us a sense of the problem.  “Every day, approximately, plus or minus, 10,000 names” come to NCTC’s attention.  Combined with other elements of intelligence, the day’s collection “sometimes [is] described as vastly exceeding the holdings of the Library of Congress.”  The consequence is that Mr. Travers’ morning briefing can run up to 840 pages, by his own accounting.

“Unmanageable” doesn’t do this situation justice.  There will never be enough intelligence analysts to read and interpret a Library of Congress each day, and there shouldn’t be.  At this point, Congress must step up to its mandate, politically uncomfortable though it is, and drive the intelligence community toward priority-setting.  It’s essential for our national security – collecting dots is interfering with connecting them.

Getting control of resources is the natural way to compel choices about priorities, but that’s extraordinarily difficult since every meaningful detail about the intelligence budget is classified.  So Congress is going to have to start somewhere simpler.  The intelligence community currently is exempt from investigations by the Government Accountability Office, but a bill to change that is winding its way through Congress.   (See H.AMDT 666 to H.R. 5136)  It should be passed.  Nothing the federal government does should be so secret that it is wholly unaccountable.

Understanding how the risk of terror attack has changed also is important.  Cue former Rep. Hamilton again, along with his 9/11 Commission co-chair Tom Kean and terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman.  Yesterday they released an update assessment on the threat of terror attack.   It acknowledged that Al Qaeda’s capability to mount mass casualty attacks has plummeted, even though it continues to have that aspiration, and concluded that we now face a “dynamic threat that has diversified to a broad array of attacks.”

The emotional response to this diffusion is “to cover the waterfront,” as Hoffman suggested during the report’s roll-out.  But the right response is that Congress and the administration have to start consciously managing risk.  Hoffman’s one comment aside, this report takes a step in the that direction by naming the attacks that are likely to happen – suicide bombings, swarming assaults, and assassinations – as well as those that aren’t – WMD terrorism or anything in outside of major population centers.

Resources should follow those risks.  In addition to undermining our security, it’s fiscally irresponsible to do otherwise, especially when federal debt is nearly equal to national income and our national defense budget, of which intelligence is a part, is at heights unmatched since World War II.  Take it from Lee Hamilton – there’s no time like the present to stop buying national insecurity.

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