When considering matters of national security, the assumption is that more is better: The larger the military you have, the better your chances of repelling an invasion, and of holding an awesome parade down the main strip of your capital city. The more border guards you have, the better your chances of catching something or someone dangerous trying to sneak through, such as a dirty bomb or someone who wants to pick lettuce for $3 an hour. But with intelligence gathering, more may just be confusing. This week, the Washington Post is printing the results of a two-year investigation into America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism intelligence apparatus, which it finds bloated, redundant, ungovernable, and possibly counterproductive.
The situation is so bad that it seems like the people tasked with sorting through and understanding all the intelligence regularly freak out over the sheer amount of information they’re expected to master. For example, this guy:
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.
Or this guy:
In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight …
It’s too much, he complained. The inbox on his desk was full, too. He threw up his arms, picked up a thick, glossy intelligence report and waved it around, yelling.
“Jesus! Why does it take so long to produce?”
“Why does it have to be so bulky?”
Kind of puts in perspective all your unread Google alerts and chain e-mails your uncle sends you, doesn’t it?
Ackerman and Noah Shachtman at Wired’s Danger Room say the report
is “bound to provoke all sorts of questions — both from taxpayers wondering where their money goes, and from U.S. adversaries looking to penetrate America’s spy complex.” Foreign Policy’s Daniel Drezner, meanwhile, thinks that while some redundancy is probably a good thing in counter-terrorism, but this seems like “redundancy run amok.” And the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder notes that Dana Priest’s past exposés on CIA black sites and the conditions at Walter Reed resulted in tangible changes. Could it happen again?
Lastly, from the Post’s own columnist Gene Weingarten, on Twitter: “Sadly, my takeaway from The WaPo’s expose today is that 9/11 was a GIGANTIC success.”