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Investigation Sheds Light On Giant, Unwieldy U.S. Intelligence System

  • Richard Solash

The Central Intelligence Agency seal in the lobby of its headquarters, just one of the 10,000 locations where work related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in the United States.

The Central Intelligence Agency seal in the lobby of its headquarters, just one of the 10,000 locations where work related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in the United States.

WASHINGTON -- "The complexity of this system defies description." Those are the words of retired Lieutenant General John Vines, who last year reviewed the methods used to track the U.S. Defense Department's top-secret programs.

"Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness, and waste," Vines said. "We consequently can't effectively assess whether it is making us more safe."

Vines offered those observations in an interview with "The Washington Post." It was one of hundreds of interviews conducted during two years of research by some two dozen of the paper's staff.

The result: "Top Secret America," a series of articles that depict the U.S. intelligence infrastructure as a massive, unwieldy behemoth full of redundancies -- a system in which even those in charge cannot fully comprehend its scope. Swelling at a breakneck pace since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is perhaps even hampering its own efforts to keep U.S. citizens safe, the report suggests.

"That is exactly what it boils down to: More is not always better," says Dana Priest, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and the primary author of "Top Secret America."

"[But] as officials will say, that is always the solution -- that members of Congress and people within the government, their answer to any mistake or anything that's not located on time, like the Christmas Day bombing -- it is always more," Priest says. "And we're at the point where more may actually be counterproductive."

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Christmas Bomber," fell through the interagency cracks.
Priest adds that "no one" within the U.S. intelligence system "knows how large it is, how much it costs, how many employees work in it, and just how much duplication there is."

'Lack Of Focus'

According to "The Washington Post," a "top-secret world" was created in response to the terrorist acts of 9/11, supported by a veritable blank check from the U.S. government.

That world now hosts some 854,000 people with top-secret security clearance. For comparison's sake, that is nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C.

There are nearly 1,300 government organizations and almost 2,000 private companies doing work related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in the United States, the newspaper reports. They are spread out across some 10,000 locations. Knowing exactly who is doing what becomes a monumental task -- and one that creates the potential for security threats to fall through the cracks, the report suggests.

Two terrorist incidents last year -- the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner and the Fort Hood shooting by an army psychiatrist that left 13 U.S. soldiers dead -- were due to "lack of focus, not lack of resources," according to "The Washington Post."

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted the Christmas Day bombing, was already on a U.S. watch list and his association with an offshoot of Al-Qaeda was suspected when he was allowed to board a plane bound for the United States on December 25.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in its investigation of the near-catastrophe, said, "no one entity within the IC [intelligence community] has sole responsibility nor bears the entire burden of either connecting dots or accountability for failing to do so."

Multiple U.S. intelligence agencies under the coordination of Dennis Blair, the former U.S. director of national intelligence (DNI), were also criticized for failing to share information in connection with the November massacre at the Fort Hood army base, when Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting spree.

Dennis Blair has yet to be officially replaced as director of national intelligence.
After these intelligence failures, and amid reports of infighting among the agencies he oversaw, Blair resigned in May. "After 9/11...the attitude was, 'if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing,'" Blair told "The Washington Post."

Intentional Overkill

While some observers say increased centralization is the way to sort out each agency's function and ensure effective interagency communication, others say countering threats requires an expansive intelligence network like the one in place.

Gary Schmitt, a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says he is not convinced that "The Washington Post's" figures indicate high levels of inefficiency. The proliferation of intelligence agencies, he says, is the logical response to the nature of today's threats.

"The threat is a difficult one, because it's sort of like finding a needle in a haystack," Schmitt says. "You can wait for the haystack to catch on fire, or you try to get in early enough, and that requires a lot of resources and a lot of personnel to stay on top of plots before they ever become realities."

David Gompert, the acting DNI until a replacement for Blair is chosen, said in a statement that "The Washington Post's" reporting "does not reflect the intelligence community we know."

"We work constantly to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies, while preserving a degree of intentional overlap among agencies to strengthen analysis, challenge conventional thinking, and eliminate single points of failure," he added.

But with no less than 51 federal organizations and military commands all tracking the flow of money to and from terrorist networks, for example, "intentional overlap" may be more of a confusion than a safety measure.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that possibility in an interview with the newspaper. "There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that -- not just for the DNI, but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense -- is a challenge," he said.

Budget Pressures

Dana Priest says that the system is not beyond reform. A reform push after September 11 created the massive system in place today. Her reporting, she says, may help bring about change -- along with another consideration.

"They also are up against another ticking clock, which is the deficit and the recession," Priest adds. "And as they [top officials] told me, they don't believe that this sort of spending levels can even be sustained because of that, so the intelligence community is going to have to look hard at what programs actually work and which programs really don't, and to make appropriate cuts."

When asked by a reporter on July 19 if "The Washington Post's" investigation will lead to a review of how the State Department communicates with the intelligence community, spokesman Philip Crowley said, "We haven't waited for any 'Washington Post' expose."

Crowley said that there'd been "a very significant process of reviewing the lessons learned from the Christmas Day bomber, and in fact, we have adjusted our operating procedures -- our interaction both with the NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center], the terrorist-screening center, and other elements of the intelligence community. So that review and the changes in our procedures has already largely been adopted."

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