We were told that the timing of the arrest of 10 members of the so-called Russian Spy Ring, which almost overlapped with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the United States, was purely coincidental. Perhaps, but I still prefer to cling to my conspiracy theories.
On the other hand, this month’s Washington Post publication of a three-piece story on intelligence gathering in the U.S. does appear to be completely incidental to the Russian spy saga. A product of a two-year investigation conducted by two superb reporters, Dana Priest and William Arkin, the story is a piece of serious journalism that doesn’t belong in the media circus (to which the Post has contributed its fair share) surrounding the Russian "unlawful agents." (And I’m even willing to accept that the timing of the Post’s publication was not coincidental to the Senate hearing on the nomination of Ret. Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. to become the next Director of National Intelligence.)
The only coincidence I could think about is the summer season, a designated time to read goose-bumping spy stories. Like the one featuring Angelina Jolie and Anna Chapman ("Chapman. Anna Chapman", as they now say in Russia). Isn’t it wonderful beach reading? It sure is. But the coincidence stops here, because the Post’s story isn’t fun reading. On the contrary, it’s very disturbing. Let’s read what Priest and Arkin tell us about U.S. government’s attempts to protect us from deadly terrorist attacks:
"The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs [and] how many people it employs…After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine."
Has become large.
The number of intelligence entities has mushroomed since 9/11. 24 shops were set up by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security (Department since November 2002). 37 more were added in 2002, 36 in 2003, 26 in 2004, 31 in 2005, 32 in 2006, and about 20 in 2007, 2008, and 2009 each. In total, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. All in all, Priest and Arkin estimate that:
"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."
Naturally, all this costs money. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress allocated $40 billion atop of the existing homeland security budget. $36.5 and $44 billion more came in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Last year’s publicly announced intelligence budget was $75 billion, a 250% increase over what it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But, as Priest and Arkin point out, "…the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs."
Has become unwieldy.
The rapid creation of so many agencies has had two unintended (however hardly unanticipated) consequences. First, it resulted in a vast redundancy in their activities. For example, 51 (!) federal organizations and military commands are charged with tracking the flow of money belonging to terrorist networks. Second, and much more troubling, the numerous agencies are producing such a monstrous volume of information that no one seems to be capable of making sense of it. Consider this:
– Every day, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts and stores 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. A fraction of this information is sorted into 70 separate databases.
– The analysis of all gathered information are spread over 50,000 (!) intelligence reports each year.
Its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
Impossible to determine? Why? Doesn’t look like rocket science to me. Here are the facts.
On November 5, 2009 at the Fort Hood military base, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire, killing 13 people and wounding 30. In the months before the shooting, Maj. Hasan had exchanged 18 emails with a well-known radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who, by the way, was monitored by the FBI. Yet this information had not reached the organization charged with counterintelligence within the Army, the Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group. And why not? Because instead of trying to identify potential jihadist sympathizers within the Army, as it was supposed to do, the 902nd has been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and al-Qaeda student organizations in the United States, something that other counterintelligence agencies — surprise! — have been already doing.
Last fall, a group of secret U.S. commandos operating in Yemen reported about a Nigerian radical, whose father was worried about his son’s whereabouts and intentions. This intel did reach the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in Washington, but arrived there buried within 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data. So when the above-mentioned "Nigerian radical", Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded a Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, on Christmas Day of 2009, and attempted to detonate an explosive device, it wasn’t up to U.S. counterterrorist agents, but rather to a courageous Dutch passenger, to thwart a disaster.
Now, let’s make it very clear: it’s not that the two terrorists had outsmarted the U.S. counterterrorist watchers. No, they gave all visible indications of being a threat to our national security. But the signals were missed because too many government agencies — and no one in particular — were in charge of picking up, correctly interpreting, and acting upon these signals. Like the proverbial seven Russian nannies who can’t take care of a single baby. (Except that the U.S. Intelligence Community is composed of 16 "nannies.")
The reaction of the top national security officials to Fort Hood shooting and Christmas Day bombing was very predictable. The then Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, asked Congress for more money and more analysts to prevent future "mistakes." Michael Leiter, Director of NCTC, also asked for more analysts (to back up the 300 he already supervises). Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security suddenly realized that it also needed more air marshals and analysts, despite the fact that, as Priest and Arkin point out, "…it can’t find nearly enough qualified people to fill its intelligence unit now."
Against this background, the brilliancy with which the FBI handled the 10 alleged Russian spies looks just exemplary. True, in contrast to radical jihadists, the members of the Russian Spy Ring behaved much more cooperatively: they talked to themselves in FBI-bugged homes when composing messages to the "Moscow Center"; they spilled their guts to federal undercover agents posing as their Russian intelligence handlers; they left behind secret passwords written on pieces of paper; and called their daddies in Moscow when having troubles. If only all the terrorists (including the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, who almost escaped the FBI watch) were so low-maintenance!
Better yet, the Russians never obtained any classified or otherwise-sensitive U.S. information, and, honestly, never made any serious attempt to do so. However, it took an untold number of FBI agents almost 10 years (and spending of untold amounts of money) to watch these dangerous people. And after the FBI finally got rid of them in a Swap-of-the-Century, the agency (using Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, as a mouthpiece) presented the case as "a wake up call to the public" and demanded — surprise again! — more money and more agents.
One can’t help but admire the leadership of U.S. Intelligence Community at least for their consistency: whether reacting to a "wake up call" or preventing future "mistakes", they ask for more money and more human resources regardless.
The reaction of the top national security officials to the Post’s story was mixed. Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged the problem and promised to review existing programs for waste. But Acting Director of National Intelligence David Gompert opined that the Post’s report "does not reflect the Intelligence Community we know." (We who?) His future permanent replacement, James Clapper, wasn’t cheerful, either, calling the report "sensationalism" and claiming that the U.S. intelligence community is "under control." Under control? Well, I wish Gen. Clapper good luck when he soon assumes control over 16 intelligence nannies.
Writing for the Post on July 21, David Ignatius eloquently summarized what all of us, non-professionals, seem to understand better than the people doing this for a living:
"…a smaller, better-controlled intelligence community will actually make the country safer than the unmanaged sprawl we have now."
I’m just afraid that the idea of a smaller (and therefore cheaper) intelligence community has a little chance of surviving in a city where so many love talking about "small government."
As former President George W. Bush famously noted in 2005:
"It will take time to restore chaos and order…But we will."
Chaos we already have. It’s time to restore order.