Last year’s NSA leaks have brought the capabilities of U.S. intelligence agencies to the forefront of the global conversation and revealed their unequaled ability to monitor nearly everyone, from average citizens to global leaders.
With a high premium placed on actionable intelligence in the post-9/11 world, the resources available to the intelligence community exploded, while traditional legal restrictions on its activities were watered down or removed altogether. Despite this unprecedented growth in scope and capabilities, U.S. intelligence efforts have proven to be frustratingly flawed, squandering resources on countless endeavors while failing to recognize real threats.
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent over $500 billion on intelligence related activities, constructed a sprawling intelligence apparatus that comprises 17 different agencies, and dramatically eroded constitutional protections for U.S. citizens in the name of security. Despite these colossal national sacrifices, there has been little apparent improvement in the quality of intelligence making its way to the leadership in Washington, and the intelligence community is often unable to effectively act on the information it does possess. When explaining before Congress the failure to stop the Underwear Bomber despite clear signals warning of an attack, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair admitted the distribution of responsibility was so convoluted that it prevented anyone from taking action. Similarly, despite monitoring the communications of nearly the entire U.S. population, the NSA has failed to effectively hamper terrorist recruitment within the U.S. itself. According to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, more than 100 Americans are currently fighting abroad for the Islamic State.
Certainly, there are areas where the intelligence community excels. The NSA dominates signals intelligence, achieving nearly unfettered access to every form of electronic communication globally, while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has proven extremely adept at identifying and dismantling the leadership of terrorist organizations. But the actual value of these activities to national security is hardly clear-cut.
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent over $500 billion on intelligence related activities, constructed a sprawling intelligence apparatus that comprises 17 different agencies, and dramatically eroded constitutional protections for U.S. citizens in the name of security. Despite these colossal national sacrifices, there has been little apparent improvement in the quality of intelligence making its way to the leadership in Washington.
The most important task of the intelligence community, protecting the homeland, has been hampered by bureaucracy, turf wars, and an unwillingness to act on information gathered, many of the same problems that made 9/11 possible. Two of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the past decade, the Fort Hood shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings, were both preceded by intelligence alerts that should have prevented the incidents. In the Fort Hood shootings, warnings signs were ignored by the both the FBI and the military. Meanwhile, authorities failed to intercept the main Boston bomber because of a lack of coordination between various watch-lists and a misspelling of his name in a database.
Rather than becoming more streamlined and effective in light of the shortcomings revealed by these failures, the national security establishment continues to get more bloated, bureaucratic, and opaque. For example, the NSA engaged in a phenomenal expansion of data collection programs like PRISM, prompting widespread global diplomatic backlash, despite only having the capacity to analyze a tiny fraction of the information it collects. Similarly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which was created in 2005 as a means of coordinating the vast intelligence apparatus, has largely failed in this task. The ODNI has no legal or budget authority over the agencies it supposedly supervises, and has largely been ignored by them. Despite this, it has continued to balloon in size, growing from 11 to over 1,700 employees since its inception.
This continued dysfunction raises serious questions about what the nation is getting in return for its investment in enhancing American security. Since 9/11, Congress has responded to perceived threats by writing an effective blank check for intelligence activities. Rather than improve security however, this phenomenal expansion has merely compounded the problems that have perennially plagued the agencies, namely an increasing overlap of efforts, information hoarding from competing bureaucracies, and the proliferation of projects of dubious value. When interviewed for the Washington Post‘s “Top Secret America” series, senior officials testified to the unoriginal analysis and tremendous duplication that characterizes much of the intelligence work produced post-911. The director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command even went so far as to complain that the National Counterterrorism Center, an agency tasked with handling and analyzing some of the most sensitive data, had in almost five years, “never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars.”
Rather than becoming more streamlined and effective in light of the shortcomings revealed by these failures, the national security establishment continues to get more bloated, bureaucratic, and opaque.
One of the most serious consequences of the intelligence community’s enhanced clout is a collapse in accountability, as demonstrated by the CIA’s willingness to spy on the staff of the Senate committee responsible for its oversight. When the Senate Intelligence Committee was preparing a critical report on the CIA’s interrogation program, CIA officers gained access to a Senate computer, read the emails of Senate staff and submitted a criminal complaint to the Justice Department based on false information. Despite verbally expressing outrage at this blatant violation of the law, Senate leaders have so far shown little appetite for actually exercising any of their oversight duties and have been content to allow the CIA director to deal with the matter internally.
The intelligence community has ballooned in size and influence, but not effectiveness. Over the past 13 years it has exacted a heavy price in both taxpayer dollars (over $78 billion in FY2012) and constitutional protections. The steps for reform are clear: substantially reduce funding; eliminate programs and even agencies that have not proven their value; reign in the scope and nature of operations; and provide proper legal and congressional oversight. The real question is whether there is any desire among lawmakers to fundamentally transform the way U.S. intelligence carries out business. Until elected leaders realize the costs and ineffectiveness of the current arrangement, the intelligence community will continue to exhaust massive funds in exchange for questionable results, while exercising a cloak of secrecy and legal impunity in the name of national security.
Enea Gjoza is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.