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The U.S. Intelligence Community is Bigger Than Ever, But is It Worth It?

The U.S. spends more than $1 trillion on national security annually, but a lack of transparency prevents us from knowing if these programs are actually working.

February 6, 2015

Cross­pos­ted on Defense One.

The U.S. spends nearly $1 tril­lion on national secur­ity programs and agen­cies annu­ally, more than any other nation in the world. Yet despite this enorm­ous invest­ment, there is not enough evid­ence to show the public that these programs are keep­ing Amer­ic­ans any safer – espe­cially in the intel­li­gence community. Excess­ive govern­ment secrecy prohib­its the public and over­sight agen­cies alike from determ­in­ing whether our expens­ive intel­li­gence enter­prise is worth the invest­ment.

The United States intel­li­gence community is comprised of 17 federal agen­cies assigned an array of missions relat­ing to national defense, foreign rela­tions, home­land secur­ity and law enforce­ment. These agen­cies form just the found­a­tion of a sprawl­ing enter­prise that incor­por­ates intel­li­gence and non-intel­li­gence compon­ents of many other federal agen­cies, state and local police, includ­ing fire and emer­gency response, inter­na­tional govern­ment part­ners, as well as private compan­ies and organ­iz­a­tions.

These entit­ies connect through an array of inform­a­tion shar­ing plat­forms and portals, includ­ing the National Coun­terter­ror­ism Center, the Joint Coun­terter­ror­ism Assess­ment Team, 71 FBI Joint Terror­ism Task Forces, 56 Field Intel­li­gence Groups, and 78 state and local intel­li­gence fusion centers, which can incor­por­ate milit­ary and private sector parti­cipants. Inform­a­tion collec­ted by any of them can be distrib­uted through offi­cial inform­a­tion shar­ing systems like the Defense Depart­ment’s Secret Inter­net Protocol Router Network, or SIPR­Net; the U.S. Navy’s Law Enforce­ment Inform­a­tion Exchange, or LInX; the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity Inform­a­tion Network, or HSIN; the Director of National Intel­li­gence’s Inform­a­tion Shar­ing Envir­on­ment, or ISE; and the FBI’s eGuard­ian, National Data Exchange, or N-DEx; National Crime Inform­a­tion Center, or NCIC; and Law Enforce­ment Online, or LEO, among others.

FBI and Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity offi­cials oper­ate several private sector intel­li­gence shar­ing organ­iz­a­tions as well, includ­ing the Domestic Secur­ity Advis­ory Coun­cil, InfraG­ard, and the National Cyber Forensics and Train­ing Alli­ance. They have estab­lished formal “stra­tegic part­ner­ships” with certain busi­nesses and univer­sit­ies for counter-intel­li­gence and coun­terter­ror­ism purposes. Private indus­tries and “key” resources the govern­ment deemed “crit­ical infra­struc­ture” have estab­lished 18 Inform­a­tion Shar­ing and Analysis Centers. In 2010, the Wash­ing­ton Post docu­mented almost 2,000 private compan­ies work­ing on coun­terter­ror­ism, home­land secur­ity, and intel­li­gence. Over 5 million govern­ment employ­ees and private contract­ors now hold secur­ity clear­ances giving them access to clas­si­fied inform­a­tion.

U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies also have close work­ing rela­tion­ships with inter­na­tional part­ners, includ­ing the govern­ments of the United King­dom, Canada, Australia and New Zeal­and under the “five eyes” agree­ment. They share intel­li­gence with other nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia through memor­anda of under­stand­ing, or other less formal agree­ments. The U.S. milit­ary main­tains from 598 to 1,000 bases and install­a­tions in at least 40 foreign coun­tries.

The annual intel­li­gence budget exceeds $70 billion per year, but that figure repres­ents just a small portion of what the U.S. spends on national defense and home­land secur­ity. In a recent inter­view, Ben Fried­man of the Cato Insti­tute does the math:

The nonpar­tisan Project on Govern­ment Over­sight and the Columbia Journ­al­ism Review back up Fried­man’s estim­ate that the U.S. now spends roughly $1 tril­lion a year for national secur­ity. This figure dwarfs the combined defense budgets of all possible contenders, combined.

Fried­man argues that the threats we face today don’t justify such prof­lig­ate spend­ing. Protec­ted by oceans and bordered by friendly nations, there’s little risk of a foreign inva­sion. Deaths from wars and other polit­ical viol­ence abroad have sharply decreased as well. Terror­ism and viol­ent crime in the U.S. are at histor­ic­ally low levels.

Yet despite the relat­ive safety our nation enjoys and the enorm­ous effort and expense dedic­ated toward strength­en­ing U.S. secur­ity, Amer­ic­ans feel less safe than any time since the 9/11 terror­ist attacks. So the ques­tion isn’t just whether our national secur­ity meas­ures are neces­sary, but whether they work. Do our intel­li­gence agen­cies actu­ally improve U.S. secur­ity and give policy makers the best avail­able inform­a­tion to make wise policy decisions?

Unfor­tu­nately, the excess­ive secrecy shroud­ing intel­li­gence activ­it­ies means Amer­ic­ans have little public inform­a­tion from which to eval­u­ate whether the intel­li­gence enter­prise is worth the invest­ment. Fried­man explains how too much secrecy under­mines effect­ive policy making, and makes govern­ment “stupid:”

There are many culprits we can blame for spread­ing undue public fear, from a sensa­tion­al­ist media to manip­u­lat­ive politi­cians. But a signi­fic­ant part of the prob­lem is that intel­li­gence offi­cials are incentiv­ized to exag­ger­ate threats, which risks the misap­plic­a­tion of secur­ity resources and poor national secur­ity policies.

Once the threat assess­ment process is corrup­ted this way, resources will be misdir­ec­ted as policy makers over­em­phas­ize threats that reson­ate with the public, while ignor­ing ones that don’t, leav­ing us vulner­able even as secur­ity resources are squandered. The FBI’s 2004 warn­ings about increas­ing mort­gage fraud fell on deaf ears in the intel­li­gence estab­lish­ment, for example, which waited until 2009 before it iden­ti­fied the result­ing global economic melt­down as the primary threat to national secur­ity.

Amer­ic­ans’ abil­ity to hold our govern­ment offi­cials account­able for national secur­ity policy decisions requires public inform­a­tion about the threats and the meas­ures neces­sary to protect us from them. As Fried­man has argued, there isn’t a simple formula for defend­ing Amer­ican secur­ity, “[b]ut skep­ti­cism — toward both what we are told to fear and the defenses we are sold to confront it — is a good start.”