Lacking in Intelligence

Lacking in Intelligence

By David Warren - July 21, 2010

Occasionally my contemporaries in the "mainstream media" do superb work, and let me mention the reporting in the Washington Post on America's intelligence establishment.

The gist of it is that in the 106 months since the terror strikes of 9/11, more than 3,000 government and private contractor organizations have sprung up or been re-sprung from previously existing, to address questions of homeland security. They now operate from 10,000 locations across the U.S., and the better part of a million people now have top-secret security clearances to work in them. In Washington alone, over this time, 33 new building complexes have been or are being erected to further this task, with aggregate floor area three times that of the Pentagon. More than 50,000 intelligence reports are generated each year.

It would be almost redundant to say there is redundancy. The Post found that, for instance, there were 51 distinct organizations tracking the flow of money to terrorist organizations.

For some time now, I have been moaning about the bureaucratization of modern life. I mention the matter often, not because it is a subtle thing that is sometimes overlooked; rather because it is big and obvious and constantly overlooked. Jokes are made about it, even within the bureaucracies themselves, but they are of a fatalistic kind. It is assumed that this is the only way to do things.

Note that this vast machinery utterly failed to stop any of the last few known terror strikes or attempts in the U.S. -- the Christmas airline bomber in Detroit was stopped by an alert passenger, an Islamist nutjob uttering public threats slipped through all internal checks within the defence department to open fire in the military base at Ford Hood, and so on.

It is often argued, in defence of vast security establishments, that we cannot know about huge plots the system may have arrested or disrupted. In reality, however, we would probably know. This is because, contrary to the belief of conspiracy theorists, you cannot keep a secret once three people know it. When 854,000 people are in on the game -- as in this case -- an outsider may well have a much clearer view than an insider. Turf wars alone guarantee regular export of the more interesting information.

The Post did its "Top Secret America" series using old-fashioned, patient journalistic footwork, reviewing "government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials" -- entirely in the public domain. It is itself a testimony to the value of big journalism with big resources.

That those resources were made available is a testimony to mainstream journalistic bias. President Obama can hardly be blamed for having spawned this bureaucratic monstrosity -- the way he could be for the new health, finance, and (any moment now) energy bureaucracies that will work on the same general principles. On the contrary, President Bush spawned this one; and anyway, "liberal" journalists are far more allergic to wasteful government spending on national security than on health care, financial regulation, and environment.

A further occupational blindspot is that which the notoriously rightwing and acute Mark Steyn identified, early and often, in writing about the response to Islamist terror. "Political correctness" is taken for granted, even when it costs lives. You mustn't "profile" people (as all traditional police work required), no matter how inefficient or counter-productive it may be to treat every midwestern grandma as a potential suicide bomber.

Indeed, with a much smaller security establishment (even proportionally), and much less invasive techniques, the Israelis have a far better record for stopping terrorists dead in their tracks. And this, only because they shamelessly profile their lethal enemies.

When "politically correct" attitudes prevail, we get not only vast bureaucracy, but also, the real bad guys slipping through highly visible cracks. Nor is this situation improved when budget cuts follow and the cracks widen.

Moreover, at the very top, intelligence findings, such as they are, take the back seat to political calculation. Every major U.S. intelligence finding over the last decade, including "weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," has been dead wrong. In turn, the celebrated, very public 2007 finding that the Iranians had given up their nuclear weapons program, was delivered for no other plausible purpose than to cut the legs out from under President Bush before he started another war. The next, corrective one, showing Iran indeed still working on it, will be designed to help Obama make a case for tougher sanctions.

In other words, truth is seldom among leading criteria in the final assessment of this "intelligence" ocean; for bureaucracies have other priorities, the chiefmost being their own survival and growth.

This is not as things should be. Yet I'm at a loss to imagine how anything short of total disaster will change the way things are.

© Copyright The Ottawa Citizen

David Warren

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