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The American Way of Intelligence circa 2012

December 2, 2012

This blog hasn’t said overmuch about the intelligence aspects of September’s Benghazi disaster, beyond some initial observations, because I find the obvious dysfunction at work in the DC system to be depressingly familiar. Here’s the short version: “State” annex which barely exists because it’s really a CIA thing (i.e. not admitted officially) gets overrun in a major terrorist attack which ought to have been anticipated but, as is sometimes the case, wasn’t; the Administration doesn’t know how to spin this awful mess before the election, gets conflicting information from intelligence sources, and totally screws up the messaging, then plays CYA to a self-damaging point. Done, here we are today. How exactly Ambassador Susan Rice got those so-wrong talking points is a complex story which is fascinating to navel-gazing insiders and near-incomprehensible to anyone else.

As an aside, I can’t see how any of that was Amb. Rice’s fault and beating her up fulfills no useful purpose now. That said, she would be a terrible choice for Secretary of State and President Obama is really blowing necessary political capital here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Rice has a well-honed reputation for self-promotion considered excessive even in DC, where throw-granny-under-the-bus ambition is a sine qua non, she plays poorly with others, and is too blatantly beholden to the President to be effective at Foggy Bottom. She is a very typical DC animal: a bright person with proper pedigree who excels at excelling and gets places fast through personal loyalty more than skill (see: Paula Broadwell, who despite her perfect Bond-girl name is actually a lower-rent, semi-wannabe variant). If this marks me as a racist and/or sexist in the eyes of bien-pensants, by saying what  is well known to countless persons inside the Beltway, so be it.

Back to our story, which isn’t very edifying. Those who believe U.S. intelligence is fabulously effective and efficient, the all-seeing eye over the world – read no further, as you will be sorely disappointed. Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, has a good piece over at FP which explains in detail how intelligence-by-commtttee often works out badly and in this case certainly did. Our intelligence agencies wind up playing in the policy world – CIA positively revels in it, and that Agency is best understood as a somewhat more classified State Department – and sometimes get burned badly. Senior policymakers want objective information, except when they don’t. Analysts need to be out-of-box thinkers, even intellectually daring, yet must come to group-think consensus when the White House needs a firm answer. “Speaking truth to power” sounds great in the movies and retrospective op-eds, but can be career-ending in real life, in real time. There are paradoxes here, tensions between secrecy and openness which can never be entirely overcome, yet getting the system to work right is important and something the Intelligence Community is supposed to strive for.

Major reform of the IC in the middle of the last decade, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission, was supposed to remedy much of this, since the 16-agency hydra which is American intelligence is difficult to manage at the best of times. There is a reason intel types love cat-herding jokes. Not to mention that SpookWorld walls itself from outside examination behind ramparts of classification, and it can be functionally impossible for anyone outside the system to determine what exactly is going on in there, behind the green door. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRPTA, of course), which Congress passed eight years ago, added a new layer on top of the IC, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), to remedy this. Because adding new layers of management with ambiguous lines of authority works so well in the real world.

To the surprise of no one save the authors of the law, the DNI has fixed a small number of problems and added quite a few more, all at increased expense to the taxpayer. Dumping the DNI on top of the IC, creating an actual intelligence czar – since that had ostensibly been the job of the Director of Central Intelligence over at Langley, except not really, since as established in 1947 the IC model didn’t actually give the DCI the power to run more than CIA in practical terms – sounded good but was tricky in practice. In true Beltway fashion, the DNI got bags of cash, added all kinds of new jobs for the boys and girls, and wound up muddling what ought to have been made clearer by that IRPTA thing. Remember: they’re not stovepipes, they’re cylinders of excellence.

Insiders and wise outsiders have been railing against the New Model IC since Congress debated it all in the mid-oughts, and the only discussion has been whether the post-9/11 reforms have made the system somewhat worse or incredibly worse. None can deny that the whole thing has gotten dramatically more expensive, with huge increases in budgets and jobs in almost all agencies in the last decade. The American way of intelligence keeps chugging along, doing what it does. And let it be said that the IC has lots of smart, dedicated people, who protect you, dear citizens, while you sleep, and prevent Bad Things from going down, more often than not. As they unfailing point out, the public usually hears only about the ball-droppings, when something gets screwed up like Benghazi, while a dozen big successes that same season stay secret for decades.

Nevertheless it seems worth asking if the American way of intelligence is growing more, not less, dysfunctional with time. “Intelligence culture” is a hot topic among the relatively few scholars who think about such things (one of the tough aspects is that since spy services keep themselves out of the media when possible, it’s difficult for scholars not “in access” to figure anything out, so many outside “experts” really have no idea what they are talking about: you have been warned), and it’s clear that the U.S. has an approach to the spy business which is unique. Our intelligence apparatus is huge, indeed gargantuan by any global standard; funded at a level of lavishness others can only marvel at; focused overwhelmingly, even after 9/11, on foreign rather than domestic issues, offering something like global coverage which no one else seriously aspires to; based on pretty amazing technology (especially SIGINT and IMINT) which only the U.S. can afford; and possessing a bureaucratic model which is so complex, with the addition of the DNI, that even some insiders have a hard time making sense of it all.

It seems worth pondering whether the IC as-is is something the United States can afford as we face an era of prolonged fiscal austerity. It appears likely that our intelligence agencies, like the Defense apparatus as a whole, will see significant budget cuts in coming years, and perhaps pretty soon. Getting ahead of that curve would be wise, since falling budgets can present an opportunity to refocus on what’s really important. Unfortunately, our intelligence agencies are part of the government – on bad days they resemble amazingly expensive and secretive versions of the Department of Motor Vehicles – so thinking big in a forward-looking way isn’t what they excel at.

Big questions loom after Benghazi and the fall of Dave Petraeus. It’s clear that the coordination of finished intelligence across agencies remains a hornet’s nest which may let down policymakers at inopportune moments, and adding the DNI hasn’t fixed it, perhaps the contrary. The militarization of the CIA, between drones and close collaboration with the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command on a daily basis, has gotten so pronounced that the public has noticed. Whether that’s a good thing in the long run is a big and important question which Congress ought to address. JSOC may be a better owner of such capabilities, not least because CIA has a track record of making a costly hash of paramilitary stuff more often than not. Above all, harebrained ideas ought to be avoided, on grounds of cost as much as common sense. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s recent announcement that it’s entering the real spyworld in a big way for the first time ought to raise concerns, since the problem with the IC is never a lack of people – indeed, more can often mean worse, since Lenin’s dictum that quantity has a quality all its own seldom applies in espionage, where quality is what it’s all about – and DIA has a track record of being a pretty inefficient place even by DC standards. Sending out several hundred newly-minted case officers all over the world is a recipe for a raft of juicy, front-page stories in The Washington Post in 2013-2015 about the new spy silly season. But don’t expect anyone at DIA to say anything negative here, since who could possibly be opposed to a program which will raise that Agency’s budget, prestige, and seat at the bureaucratic table?

So it goes …

5 Comments
  1. A Stranger in a Strange Land permalink

    John, I really like your blog. It is refreshing to read straight talk about the obvious questions we Americans have about the hired help.

    So won’t you indulge me my blunt overture to you:

    I am a Son of the Revolution. Descendant of the Mayflower company. Ivy graduate. A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam. And yet I feel like my so-called civil servants hold me in utter contempt and trust me about as far as they can throw me. This is of course based solely on my experience as a taxpayer, a former frequent flyer, businessman and life member of the NRA etc.

    When I read the various “insider exclusives” that won’t name names but which seem to come very close to calling the shots months in advance, WHY SHOULD I NOT CONSIDER MYSELF A MEMBER OF AN OCCUPIED TERRITORY?

    Look, I know that mind games are your game. But you swore and oath and I’m asking you a straight question and would very much like a straight answer.

    Call me,
    Feeling Like a Stranger in a Strange Land

    • Thank you for your frank response. More than once I have asked myself – though I am not exactly an old-cloth WASP myself – a similar question.

      I think, basically, two things are going on. First, the (unelected) parts of the government – which have expanded enormously in recent years – are going their own way, with little regard for what the taxpayers may want of them. As someone who has sucked at the Federal teat for quite a few years, I find this shocking, but I really don’t know what is to be done, per Lenin: when Federal workers start sounding like a member of the Paul clan, something is up. We can only hope that the (coming, more than ever) Federal budget implosion may bring sanity.

      Secondly, the elite who run DC – I mean the real show-runners, not the hired help in places like intelligence and law enforcement – have pretty much decided that electing a new people is fine by them, per Brecht. Whether this works out better than in East Germany, as Brecht was commenting on, remains to be seen.

      The great poet Randall Jarrell – I think by far the best American poet of the last century – was asked what he thought George Washington would make of what we – he was talking mid-20th century, Beaver Cleaver era – had done with the USA. I don’t know if George Washington would be afraid of us, he said, but we would be mighty afraid of George Washington.

      Truer than ever.

      • A Stranger in a Strange Land permalink

        Hmmm. In the belly of an ancient cathedral is a bronze plaque commemorating its one-time Prior, paying manly respect to the family’s role in history.

        Were my (not so metaphorically) distant cousin George to revive and return to his handiwork I would greet him with humble gratitude and a snappy salute, waiting on his every word. But only He will come again with power and great glory, I’m afraid.

        This is one mess we’re going to have to clean on our own, I’m afraid. Absent the Second Coming, of course. Either way, Brecht and his fellow travellers can go to hell. This isn’t Wiemar. Not yet.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Losing the Spywar Has Consequences « The XX Committee
  2. “Nobody Knows Anything” | The XX Committee

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