Candidate Barack Obama said he would “rein in” the mushrooming intelligence complex and make operations more transparent. He has, in contrast, signed off on proposals to expand that intelligence empire, as demonstrated in the PBS “Frontline” program, airing on Albuquerque’s Channel 5, late in September 2011. The United States has long had an affinity for intelligence activities. There are 16 intelligence agencies in the national government and an organizational chart of these agencies looks like a bowl of spaghetti. Yet, how over-structured the intelligence complex was before 9/11 is like nothing what happened after 9/11.
In mid-2011, the Washington Post ran a series entitled “Top-Secret America,” which described the swelling of an intelligence complex in terms of budget, people with security clearance, buildings and intelligence-gathering capabilities. The intelligence budget in 2009 was an estimated $75 billion — the actual amount is secret — two and one-half times what it was before 9/11; more than 850,000 people hold security clearances; 30 top-secret intelligence complexes have been built or are being built in the Washington DC area; and at least 263 government intelligence organizations have been built or reorganized since 9/11. The Washington Post’s lead reporter on intelligence matters, Dana Priest, said on the “Frontline” program that there are 1,700 intelligence facilities across the nation. The intelligence budget for FY 2012 is estimated at $80 billion.
One segment of the “Frontline” program showed Dana Priest touring a shopping mall, with a real estate agent seated beside her, pointing out which buildings were involved in intelligence-related work. It was revealed that what appeared to be a four-story building might have ten stories underground.
Every day the National Security Agency intercepts and stores 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communications — equivalent to the Library of Congress, as one analyst claims. There aren’t nearly enough translators and researchers to handle this vast flow of information.
According to the Washington Post, much of this top-secret work is being done by the old Cold War giants: General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
If we expand the list of companies and organizations working on intelligence-related activities to include counter-terrorism and homeland security activities, than the Washington Post totals grow to 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working in about 10,000 locations across the country. Just to track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks, there are 51 federal organizations and military commands operating in 15 U.S. cities.
Added to the number of governmental employees holding top-secret security clearance, there are 250,000 who are employed by private, profit-making companies. The military’s Special Operations Command, headquartered in Florida, has 1,000 personnel engaged in various types of intelligence operations.
The recent action of the U.S. House of Representatives in passing an intelligence budget underscores President Obama’s failure to rein in spending and make intelligence operations more transparent. The House voted 384 to 14 to pass and intelligence budget bill reportedly exceeding $80 billion. Obama, however, had asked for more.
The Obama administration was concerned about a provision that would have required the director of national intelligence to provide the intelligence committee with cables, memos and other information on detainees held at Guantanamo, as well as government-to-government information.
In July of 2011, Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, accused the Obama administration of ineffective supervision and coordination of the nation’s web of intelligence agencies and operations.
What Should Obama Do or Have Done
Whatever the merits of Dennis Blair’s complaints, the more serious charge to be laid against President Obama and his administration is that nothing notable has been done to drastically cut this vast intelligence complex. We don’t need 16 intelligence agencies; instead we might want to reduce to two, one in the Pentagon and the CIA, stripped of its covert operations capabilities.
The number of organizations, companies, complexes, buildings and people with security clearances needs to be drastically reduced, as we can’t protect ourselves from every possible terrorist attack; also, we must learn how to prioritize resources. Given that the general consensus of intelligence analysts is that Al Qaeda has metastasized into a number of small, regionally dispersed groups, it is both extremely difficult and costly to identify, monitor and control individuals and small groups that might be working on a terrorist plot.
Looking at the question of violence perpetrators on a wider scale, most of the major acts of violence in the world have been committed by nation-states and not by non-state actors.
Regarding the National Security Agency, its scope of activities needs to be scaled way back, as it is creating a vast storage problem of information that can’t be analyzed. We need to also remember that a story broke during the Bush administration that N.S.A. employees were listening in on private U.S. phone conversations and sharing salacious comments of lovers among one another.