Why Size Doesn’t Matter When Judging the Intelligence Community

The outside of the National Security Agency's main headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Trevor Paglen via Creative Time Reports

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The outside of the National Security Agency's main headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland.

Instead of criticizing how big the Intelligence Community has grown, let’s get the US to do a better job explaining why.

No, the Intelligence Community isn’t “Bigger Than Ever.

Defense One and the Brennan Center for Justice published a real humdinger of an opinion piece about the growing size and cost of the Intelligence Community, or IC, where former FBI counterterrorism interrogator Michael German asserts:

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.

There’s a budgetary bait-and-switch of massive proportions going on here. America’s “national security,” as defined in the broadest sense, costs about $1 trillion dollars annually, or approximately 25 percent of the federal budget.

But in the title, subtitle and the body of this 13-paragraph article, the author squarely focuses upon the IC’s budget-busting behavior. Yes, there are probably intelligence programs that fall outside of the $71.8 billion requested in fiscal 2016 for both the National Intelligence Budget and the Military Intelligence Budget. But contrary to the article’s title and emphasis, the Intelligence Community’s budget has actually declined by over 20 percent since hitting an all-time high in 2010. It truly isn’t “Bigger Than Ever.”

If you dig further into the article’s data, it falls apart like a house of cards. It conflates all kinds of numbers, including budget requests that have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. By using The Project on Government Oversight’s numbers for fiscal 2016, German includes the nearly $600 billion Pentagon budget, no matter if it has anything to do with intelligence; the Veterans Affairs budget, at a whopping $166 billion, or more than double the amount the U.S. spends on intelligence issues; and the Department of Homeland Security’s $50 billion request.

Members of Congress, as the people’s representatives and keepers of the purse, must aggressively fulfill its oversight role and make sure the IC’s core abilities are protected while cutting the fat. 

Sure the IC has expanded—prior to 9/11, the IC’s budget was somewhere south of $40 billion—but also recall what America’s intelligence agencies have been asked to grapple with in the last 15 years. Beyond reorienting our intelligence capabilities to respond to that massive terrorist attack on the homeland and multiple near-misses, the U.S. also invaded and occupied two countries at the same time, generating an incredible amount of intelligence requirements. We’ve also seen the exponential growth of digital communications, requiring the IC to keep up and grow to meet these challenges. And our old state adversaries haven’t vanished either.

It’s a pity the author hamstrung his own argument with shoddy numbers because some of what he says has merit. Of course, just throwing money at the intelligence agencies have probably caused massive inefficiencies and redundancies, hidden by degrees of classification. Indeed, it seems the mission and scope of the administration’s latest effort to integrate cyber efforts, the “Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center,” sounds a lot like one that already exists, DHS’ “National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center.” So, yes, the author has a point when he wrote, “the excessive secrecy shrouding intelligence activities means Americans have little public information from which to evaluate whether the intelligence enterprise is worth the investment.” But that’s the inherent tension of intelligence agencies within a democracy– their efforts are supposed to be secret.

But there’s a fix for this! Members of Congress, as the people’s representatives and keepers of the purse, must aggressively fulfill its oversight role and make sure the IC’s core abilities are protected while cutting the fat. Congress has a critical role in shuttering outdated systems, streamlining bureaucracies and squeezing broken programs. Otherwise, the system as constructed simply won’t work as well as it could.

Still, Congress needs help. Unfortunately, this article lacked specific recommendations where, exactly, Congress should bring the budgetary scalpel or broadsword to the intelligence community, or to the national security enterprise as a whole.  So here’s one way to cast a little more sunlight into the IC’s doings—provide a budget for each department and agency – i.e. the CIA this year has a budget of X, Office of the Director of National Intelligence has a budget of Y, etc. The sky won’t fall and the Russians or al-Qaeda wouldn’t suddenly have a massive advantage against America if they realize the agency has a few more or fewer dollars to spend this year.

Helping Congress make real budgetary choices is where the rubber meets the road. To excise real bloat would both help the IC and provide value to the American taxpayer. Bringing a degree of sunlight to the IC will help, but only if Congress is willing to get its hands dirty. And that starts with reducing misconceptions about the IC as a whole.

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