The first installment of the Washington Post’s new series on the massive efforts against terrorism went live today with a splashy microwebsite designed for a long-term rollout of in-depth investigative reporting. “Top Secret America” appears as though it will last for quite a while, rather than just a one-day purported exposé of military and intelligence secrets. If the opening overview gives any indication, the problem may be less that the Post will reveal classified material and more that it exposes the lack of reform in the 2005 structural changes to the intelligence community, and how much overlap and overbureaucratization had slowed our ability to act.
Not that it lacks specifics in the Dana Priest reporting today:
Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.
At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106. It was phenomenal growth that began almost as soon as the Sept. 11 attacks ended.
Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget to fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.
With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
In 2004, the 9/11 Commission reported to Congress on the failings that led to the 9/11 attacks, and gave their recommendations on how to reorganize intelligence. How has that worked? According to Priest, not well:
The first problem was that the law passed by Congress did not give the director clear legal or budgetary authority over intelligence matters, which meant he wouldn’t have power over the individual agencies he was supposed to control.
The second problem: Even before the first director, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, was on the job, the turf battles began. The Defense Department shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so that the ODNI could not touch it, according to two senior officials who watched the process. The CIA reclassified some of its most sensitive information at a higher level so the National Counterterrorism Center staff, part of the ODNI, would not be allowed to see it, said former intelligence officers involved.
And then came a problem that continues to this day, which has to do with the ODNI’s rapid expansion.
When it opened in the spring of 2005, Negroponte’s office was all of 11 people stuffed into a secure vault with closet-size rooms a block from the White House. A year later, the budding agency moved to two floors of another building. In April 2008, it moved into its huge permanent home, Liberty Crossing.
Today, many officials who work in the intelligence agencies say they remain unclear about what the ODNI is in charge of. To be sure, the ODNI has made some progress, especially in intelligence-sharing, information technology and budget reform. The DNI and his managers hold interagency meetings every day to promote collaboration. The last director, Blair, doggedly pursued such nitty-gritty issues as procurement reform, compatible computer networks, tradecraft standards and collegiality.
But improvements have been overtaken by volume at the ODNI, as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system’s ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.
This becomes a theme in the reporting on intelligence. It got too big too fast, according to the Post, and has become a leviathan incapable of any one person commanding it. Just getting a briefing is a daunting, and in some ways futile, task:
In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.
“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.
“I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said.
The 9/11 attacks interrupted a strategy created by Donald Rumsfeld to transform the American military into lighter, more nimble organizations able to respond and collaborate quickly, a strategy the Bush administration considered essential to the post-Cold War world where asymmetrical warfare would be a likelier threat than massive war from a major power. The 9/11 Commission recommendations went the other direction, bulking up bureaucracies while created crossed and dotted lines. The Post’s report comes as no surprise to anyone who recognized the fatal flaws within the creation of the ODNI and saw that it would merely create a whole new avenue for massive expansion of bureaucracy.
And the supposed crown jewel of the ODNI structure, the National Counter-Terrorism Center? According to one intel officer of command rank who went on the record, it’s been next to useless:
When Maj. Gen. John M. Custer was the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command, he grew angry at how little helpful information came out of the NCTC. In 2007, he visited its director at the time, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, to tell him so. “I told him that after 41/2 years, this organization had never produced one shred of information that helped me prosecute three wars!” he said loudly, leaning over the table during an interview.
Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington’s bureaucracy. “Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn’t gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?” he said. “Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn’t produce the same thing?”
The Post’s series may wind up exposing classified data, but what it mainly exposes in the first installment is the reality that we went the wrong direction five years ago in intelligence reform, and it’s costing us both money and security. While that was utterly predictable, the exposure of the reality might finally prompt Congress to return to intel reform and demand real restructuring, streamlining, and bureaucratic reduction before it really gets too late.