Proliferation Intelligence or Proliferation of Intelligence?

by , April 25, 2012

The one constant in American history is that government bureaucracies grow and proliferate rather than shrink and dwindle. Despite its secrecy — or perhaps because of it —  the intelligence community is no exception.

After 9/11, changing over to fight against small, nimble terrorist groups, instead of the massive, ossified bureaucracies of communist countries, was said to require the proliferation of new intelligence organizations. Of course, the giant new Department of Homeland Security had to have its own intelligence arm. That organization then joined the 14 other intelligence agencies in being rolled up and put under a new Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Fighting more agile terrorists would seem to argue for streamlining agencies and making them talk to each other better — remember, lack of coordination and communication between the intelligence bureaucracies was what allowed information on the impending 9/11 attacks to go unnoticed and un-acted upon. In 9/11’s wake, however, the solution to poor coordination and communication was to make it worse by throwing additional organizations into the mix.

During the subsequent Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration didn’t feel the CIA adequately recognized the threat from Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, so it created a new and then-controversial intelligence office in the Pentagon to come up with scarier threat information. This was later disbanded because of congressional and public concern. 

But the Pentagon, which already controls 80% of the intelligence budget, continues its quest to grab even more of the pie. Recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has created a new Defense Clandestine Service to improve the department’s human intelligence capabilities. The service was born out of a study in 2011 by the director of national intelligence, which concluded that although the Defense Intelligence Agency was fulfilling its mission of providing intelligence to the military in war zones, it needed to collect more “national intelligence” outside the battlefield to share with its sister intelligence agencies. For example, intelligence on terrorists and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction might fall into this category. So would general intelligence on Iran and China — being sold by the government as the threats of the future.

Thus, the military and CIA are increasingly focused on similar threats. In fact, one high-level Pentagon official quoted in The New York Times argued that the new Defense Clandestine Service would “thicken our coverage across the board” but then tried to alleviate concerns that the new organization would take over the function of the CIA or its National Clandestine Service. He’s right: the new entity will not take over the CIA’s function; it will begin to duplicate it. Now, the Defense Clandestine Service is small, but as with all government organizations, we can count on it to grow and turf wars with the CIA’s service to ensue.

Will all the new spooks running around make us safer? Given the plethora of historical coordination failures among intelligence agencies from Pearl Harbor down to the present, it’s doubtful. To justify the proliferation of bureaucracies, intelligence personnel usually tout “competition” among agencies to provide the best intelligence. However, unlike private companies, which are out to make money, government agencies just want to increase their budgets and number of employees. Even in times of fiscal crisis, such as at present, the “national security” label allows every intelligence agency to do so without much competition. In fact, unlike the private market, failure, rather than success, is often rewarded — after well-publicized intelligence failures, such as that on 9/11, agencies usually get more money to fix their problems. During normal times, agencies and the congressional committees allegedly overseeing their work create “gentlemen’s agreements” on dividing up the intelligence budget.

More competition — and better intelligence — would actually arise from slashing the intelligence budget and eliminating informal budget allocation agreements. Similarly, coordination could be improved by pruning the number of agencies from the 16 now in existence. A fight for survival might make these overly pampered, slothful behemoths get leaner, meaner, and more effective. Perhaps the silver lining in the current fiscal crisis will be a “draconian” budget sequestration in January 2013 that will cause such an outcome.

Read more by Ivan Eland