Thirty Flew into the Cuckoo’s Nest:
The Tangled Web of American “Intelligence”
In recent months, among other uproars and scandals, Americans learned that the Defense Department has been collecting intelligence on and tracking domestic antiwar activists; that, since 2001, the National Security Agency (NSA) has had a presidentially authorized, law-breaking, warrantless surveillance program to listen in on the international phone calls of possibly tens of thousands of U.S. citizens; that, with the help of three of the four major telephone companies, it also has had a data-mining operation — “the largest database ever assembled in the world” — linked, at least in one case, directly into a major telecommunication carrier’s network core (“where all its data are stored”), giving it access to almost all telephone calls made in this country; that, as Director of the CIA, Porter Goss, a Bush-appointed, Cheney-backed, ex-congressman, had whipped out his lie detector and conducted an internal war and purge of an agency viewed by the administration as little better than the Axis of Evil, tearing its upper ranks apart via numerous resignations and retirements; that, meanwhile, Goss’s third-in-command, a fellow with the evocative name of Kyle “Dusty” Foggo (think: fog o’ intelligence), was being investigated for possibly granting illegal Agency sweetheart contracts to a pal already involved in another major Washington corruption scandal (and don’t even get me started on those poker games and prostitutes); that Goss, in turn, was pushed out of the CIA by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Negroponte, head of a new ber-intelligence “office” (ODNI) meant to coordinate the whole sprawling “intelligence community,” and his second in command, Air Force General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA (who oversaw those surveillance and data-mining operations for the administration); that the President then nominated the active-duty general to take Goss’s place as the head of the country’s major civilian spy agency — in his Senate hearings, he would offer the following comment on Goss’s tenure: “You get a lot more authority when the work force doesn’t think it’s amateur hour on the top floor”; that Republican and Democratic Senators, having questioned the credibility of a military man who had overseen a patently illegal surveillance program on American citizens for years and then defended it vigorously, promptly collapsed in a non-oppositional heap of praise, and rubber-stamped him director by a vote of 78—15; that in the ever-upward-rippling CIA-agent-outing case of Valerie Plame — about which a stonewalling Goss said, while still head of the House Intelligence Committee, “Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I’ll have an investigation” — rumors of Karl Rove’s indictment continued to circulate; while Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald reserved the right to call the Vice President, whose office seems ever more in his sightlines, to testify in former aide I. Lewis Libby’s trial next year.
All this news involving what we call “intelligence” — and much more — played out on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and on TV, replete with copious leaks from within the intelligence community, threats from the White House to prosecute journalists reporting those leaks, outraged press editorials about sundry intelligence topics, and a great deal of heat and noise.
Each scandal came and went, the news spotlight flickering from one to the next; and yet, as Hayden’s testimony before the Senate made clear, just about no one seemed to have the urge to ask the obvious what’s-it-all-about-Alfie question. Nobody wondered what this thing called “intelligence,” over which so many tens of thousands of analysts, code breakers, and agents labor with so many tens of billions of our dollars, really is; what sort of knowledge about our planet all those acronymic intelligence organizations really deliver. The value of the “intelligence community” to deliver this thing called “intelligence,” whatever mistakes or missteps might be made, is simply taken for granted.
Department of Redundancy
Let’s back up a moment, though, and consider what any of us out here can know about the alphabet soup of the American Intelligence Community or IC (as it likes to term itself). Start with the simplest thing: There’s obviously a lot we don’t know. Much of this world is, by definition, plunged into the darkness of secrecy, including untold billions of dollars hidden away in highly classified “black” budgets. Moreover, the blanket of intelligence secrecy (regularly broken by leaks to the media from so many unhappy members of that roiling “community”) has grown ever more encompassing, given the Bush administration’s general mania for secrecy. So whatever numbers follow have to be taken with a large grain of unverifiable salt. But we do know this: The IC is simply enormous with, seemingly, a life of its own — imperially vast, a veritable mountain of proliferating agencies, groups, and organizations, larger by multiples than that of any other country — and growing more enormous almost literally as you read.
Until fairly recently, newspaper articles regularly cited an iconic 15 civilian and military intelligence agencies in that all-American “community,” a number now raised to 16 at the official website of the IC, and that figure doesn’t even include Negroponte’s new Office of the Director of National Intelligence with its near billion-dollar budget.
In addition to the Central Intelligence Agency, the gang of 16 includes the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the NSA (surveillance and code-breaking), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO — satellites), and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA — mapping), all under the aegis of the Pentagon, as well as the intelligence agencies of each of the Armed Services and the Coast Guard. Our second defense department, the Department of Homeland Security, has its own expanding intelligence arm with a mouthful of a name: the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate. (No self-respecting agency in our government would be without one!) So do the FBI, the State Department, the Energy Department, the Drug Enforcement Department, and the Treasury Department. But the iconic 16 (or 17) don’t include numerous other intelligence groupings tucked away in the government. Some outsiders doing the counting have come up with upwards of 30 entities in the IC. That assumedly represents a whole heap of secret knowledge and, certainly, a whole heap of taxpayer money.
Recently, in a slip of the tongue, Mary Margaret Graham, deputy director for national intelligence collection under Negroponte, offered (for only the third time since the founding of the CIA) a public estimate of the overall annual U.S. intelligence budget — $44 billion just to cover the iconic 15. Undoubtedly, that’s a low-ball figure, but as a crude measure of IC growth, consider that it’s almost $18 billion higher than the 1998 IC budget — that being the last time such an estimate came our way.
Of the various intelligence outfits, the CIA, the IC’s star of the big and small screen, is the most famous (or infamous, depending on your address on this planet). Its budget is estimated at perhaps $5 billion a year and, by another ballpark estimate, it has 16,000 employees; yet, in budgetary and payroll terms, that makes up a relatively small part of the intelligence landscape, dwarfed by the Pentagon’s intelligence organizations. The NSA has a budget estimated at $6—8 billion yearly; the NRO, $6—8 billion; the NGA, $3 billion; the DIA, $1 billion; and that’s not even counting the sizeable intelligence outfits run by the four individual services.
Cumulatively, an estimated 80—85% (or possibly more) of the total U.S. intelligence budget is controlled by the Pentagon, the 800-pound intelligence gorilla in the IC room — and in the midst of a growth spurt that’s threatening to send it soaring into the one-ton range.
As with so much else in these last years, the real story in the intelligence community seems to have had less to do with the production of, or analysis of, intelligence than with its militarization. Known for his skill as a bureaucratic infighter, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conducted a tough rear-guard action against the creation of Negroponte’s 9/11 Commission-sponsored ODNI; then, upon “giving in,” he managed to get what was essentially a Pentagon veto over Negroponte’s power to meddle with military intelligence. He also lobbied successfully in Congress “to curtail much of Negroponte’s clout over personnel and budgets.” (According to Doyle McManus and Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times, when Negroponte did try to make changes at the Defense Department, he was told “to take a flying leap.”)
Far more important, just as in recent years the Pentagon has moved into areas once controlled by the State Department, so Rumsfeld has for several years been moving aggressively to infringe on the CIA’s key turf, “human intelligence” or “humint.” (Think: operatives out in the field doing whatever.) Not long after 9/11, according to Barton Gelman of the Washington Post, Rumsfeld issued a written order to end his “near total dependence on [the] CIA” for humint. Then, using “reprogrammed funds” not authorized by Congress, he established a secret organization, the Strategic Support Branch, to provide him “with independent tools for the u2018full spectrum of humint operations.'”
In March 2003, he set up his right-hand man, neocon Stephen Cambone, as the first ever undersecretary of defense for intelligence. (Cambone is now regularly referred to as the Pentagon’s “intelligence czar.”) Cambone, in turn, took on as his deputy, the notorious, born-again, evangelizing Lieutenant-General William G. Boykin, who plunged himself into controversy in 2003 by saying of Islam, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol,” and of President Bush, “The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he’s in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.” Naturally, he rose in the administration hierarchy as a result.
Rumsfeld charged them both with “reorganizing” — meaning, of course, expanding — Pentagon intelligence operations through “the Special Operations Command, which reports to Rumsfeld and falls outside the orbit controlled by John Negroponte.” They were to expand specifically into the CIA’s “humint” area, creating intelligence that would “prepare the battlefield” — in part, by sending covert operations teams to spy in various countries where no battlefield was even faintly in sight. Cambone now “oversees 130 full-time personnel and more than 100 contractors in an office whose responsibilities include domestic counterintelligence, long-range threat planning and budgeting for new technologies.” And only a month ago, Rumsfeld gave the “green light” for yet another new group to be set up — the Defense Joint Intelligence Operations Center, to further “centralize” intelligence.
For some years now, the American IC has focused much attention on the issue of global nuclear proliferation, but think of these as the real “proliferation wars,” inside the only world, the only reality, that truly matters. The results, no matter which agencies top the list of winners, add up to an unsightly, ungainly Department of Redundancy and Overlap. While the NSA may, for instance, be conducting extensive data-mining operations, so is another new Pentagon organization, the Counterintelligence Field Activity or CIFA (on which more below). You don’t have to be inside the IC to see it as a vast bureaucratic landscape for fierce turf wars, power grabs, mini-empire building, squabbling, scrabbling, coups and purges, alarums and preemptive attacks; nor do you need special insider’s knowledge to recognize that the basic urge to know the world in a deeper way, to anticipate what one’s enemies (and friends) have in mind, to grasp how they think and what they may do, takes, at best, a distinct second place to the complex politics of, the real and necessary knowledge of, the intelligence world itself.
Intelligence Empire Builders in a Growth Universe
Put another way, the real story of American intelligence is simply growth and bureaucratic infighting. The Bush administration, supposedly made up of “conservatives” who loath (and once endlessly railed against) “big government,” have ensured that, like the Pentagon, the IC, already an entangled monstrosity when they arrived, would experience its greatest growth spurt in memory, becoming an ever more bloated example of hopeless big government. This reflects a more general pattern clearly visible in the creation of the administration’s pride and joy, the Department of Homeland Security, another vast, bloated, inefficient agency filled with redundancy, riddled by turf wars, plagued by inefficiency — and just to make matters worse still, the creation of an ever-expanding US Northern Command (Northcom) for the defense of — you guessed it — the “homeland.”
Within the IC, consider but three examples of Bush administration growth policies:
Start with the CIA, an agency in the process of being downgraded. It has, in fact, lost its central position as the President’s daily briefer — Negroponte does that now — and the agency is no longer his covert right-arm either. As intelligence expert Thomas Powers wrote recently: “Historically the CIA had a customer base of one — the president. When its primacy in reporting to the White House was taken away, the agency was being told in effect that henceforth it would be talking to itself.” But talking, it turns out, is hardly everything in the IC.
In the very period when it was slipping down the pole of influence, its forces on the ground were ramping up. The Agency has opened or reopened 20 stations and bases abroad, experienced a flood of new recruits, and, since 2001, tripled the number of case officers it has in the field — without as yet coming anywhere close to “a presidential directive, announced in late 2004, to increase the number of case officers and intelligence analysts by an additional 50 percent.”
Or take Negroponte’s ODNI operation. When originally suggested by the 9/11 commission and approved by Congress, it was to be a lean, mean coordination office meant to bring the sprawling IC under some control. Its staff of perhaps 750 was to lop the fat and overlap out of the IC. Instead, according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, it has undergone “rapid growth,” now has a staff of over 1,500, and a budget of nearly $1 billion — “about one-third the size of all CIA funding in years before… Sept. 11, 2001” — without yet having any significant accomplishments (other, of course, than its own growth).
Or, to return to the Pentagon, consider the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), which started as a small office to protect military facilities and personnel, but in the last years has “grown from an agency that coordinated policy and oversaw the counterintelligence activities of units within the military services and Pentagon agencies to an analytic and operational organization with nine directorates and ever-widening authority.” As CIFA garnered more power, it also gained “the ability to propose missions to Army, Navy and Air Force units, which combined have about 4,000 trained active, reserve and civilian investigators in the United States and abroad.” At the same time, according to that NBC Investigative Unit, it is becoming “the superpower of data mining within the U.S. national security community… Since March 2004, CIFA has awarded at least $33 million in contracts to corporate giants Lockheed Martin, Unisys Corporation, Computer Sciences Corporation and Northrop Grumman to develop databases that comb through classified and unclassified government data, commercial information and Internet chatter to help sniff out terrorists, saboteurs and spies.” Recently, CIFA reportedly “contracted with Computer Sciences Corp. to buy identity-masking software, which could allow it to create fake Web sites and monitor legitimate U.S. sites without leaving clues that it had been there.”
Now, multiply what happened at the CIA, ODNI, and CIFA, across 17—30 major and minor organizations, all sensing financial good times and looking for expansive “intelligence” missions to “protect” us all And so, as Kurt Vonnegut might have written, it goes.
Thirty Flew into the Cuckoo’s Nest
There is, of course, no way for an outsider — or probably any insider either — to keep track of, or make sense of, this imperial mess. In the this-way-the-madness category, consider just how blind to the larger impulsions of the intelligence world you have to be to decide to reorganize, coordinate, and simplify it, so that information-sharing and the like become normal ways of life, by placing yet another “office” on top of the hodgepodge of powerful competitors already in existence. You would have to be nearly brain-dead not to predict that such a new office would have no choice but to follow the well-beaten path of expansion, develop its own institutional base, its own institutional prerogatives, and its own turf, only adding to the chaos — or wither and die.
This is, by now, a process that should be as predictable as that at the Pentagon when it comes to the competing weapons systems of the four services. In the most recent Department of Defense budget, for instance, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, supposedly intent on “transforming” the military into a leaner, more agile, more high-tech fighting force, let every major weapons system, no matter how useless or redundant, pass through essentially untouched and with not a single one cut.
With the IC, add in another factor: Even if all its competing parts really did add up to a “community” — rather than a group of warring, bureaucratic mini-states on a collective proliferation mission — what kind of “intelligence” could possibly come out of such a conglomerate entity? Try to imagine these organizations, each filled with thousands of employees, most of them believing in intelligence and that they are in the process of delivering it, sorting through and pouring out information of every sort. Globally, all those billions of telephone calls, cell-phone calls, letters, and emails to be monitored, all those satellite photos to be checked and interpreted, all that data to be mined, all that territory to be mapped, all that “humint” to sort through, not to speak of the “open-source” material in the media, on-line, in foreign documents of every sort, spewing into our world in a Babel of languages and images.
From such a tangled web of intelligence organizations, fighting for turf, squirreling away money in black accounts, running covert operations (not to speak of secret prisons and interrogations, kidnappings and assassinations), surveilling everyone in hearing or sight, and monitoring the universe, undoubtedly comes a tangled mass of information, however computerized, beyond the ken of any set of human beings. This is the definition not of “intelligence,” but of information overkill. It is a perfect formula either for drowning in data or cherry-picking only the data and analyses that suit your preexisting plans and urges.
You can find hints of this problem in many news pieces on individual intelligence programs. For instance, that NBC Investigative Unit mentioned earlier cited “Pentagon observers” who worried that, “in the effort to thwart the next 9/11, the U.S. military is now collecting too much data, both undermining its own analysis efforts by forcing analysts to wade through a mountain of rubble in order to obtain potentially key nuggets of intelligence and entangling U.S. citizens in the U.S. military’s expanding and quiet collection of domestic threat data.” Seymour Hersh in a recent New Yorker piece on the NSA surveillance and data-mining programs similarly quoted a “Pentagon consultant” this way: “The vast majority of what we did with the intelligence was ill-focused and not productive… It’s intelligence in real time, but you have to know where you’re looking and what you’re after.”
Almost by definition, what has to emerge from the IC much of the time is essentially the opposite of “intelligence,” whatever that might be. We out here often fret about being barraged by information; now, imagine a world filled with hopeless reams and streams of information, a world in which any piece of information will be but another needle in an endless series of haystacks. In a sense, the minute you begin “mining” billions of phone calls, you’ve already admitted that, in information terms, you’re at a loss.
In search of information on the inner workings of our world, no one reasonable would ever set up a system like the IC. Were you forced to reform such an already existing mechanism, you would certainly cut all those agencies and organizations down to, at most, two competing ones — for alternate views of the world. Not that that would be ideal either.
For a maximum of a few million dollars, you might put almost any fifty knowledgeable people in a building with normal computers, access to the usual search engines, libraries, and open-source information, and you would surely arrive at a more comprehensible, saner view of our planet and what to do on it than anything $44 billion and a bevy of militarized agencies could produce. If, in fact, you had simply read Tomdispatch.com (produced for next to nothing) on a number of areas of the world over the last few years, you would have had more coherent, accurate “intelligence” than the IC seems to have been able to provide much of the time. And let’s not forget that human beings, no matter what they say on the phone, in emails, or even to their closest associates in private often don’t themselves understand what they are about to do or why they are doing it, and so are essentially unpredictable.
In other words, whatever the IC may be, it can’t be a system for the reasonable delivery of “intelligence” to American leaders. If you need proof of this, just consider one thing: On the single most important subject for every administration in the last decades of the last century, the Intelligence Community simply didn’t have a clue. With so many of its resources focused on that other empire, the USSR, they were incapable of predicting its collapse even as it was happening. Most of them didn’t believe it even after it happened.
Oh, and here’s one more awkward thing to throw into the intelligence mix. The administration that has done more than any other in recent memory to expand the IC, that has poured untold billions into ever more active intelligence capacities, has had a visible, violent allergy to intelligence. After the endless sorting of information, after the blind alleys and lying informants, after all that pressure from the Vice President as well as other top officials, and who knows what else, when the IC actually got it right, it made no difference whatsoever — as in the daily briefing handed to the President on that lazy August day in 2001 in Crawford, Texas (“Bin Laden determined to strike in US”) or on al-Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein, or on Niger yellowcake and those infamous “16 words” in the President’s 2003 State of the Union Address. In those cases, the intelligence was simply ignored in favor of exaggerated or doctored versions of the same, or lies based on nothing at all (except perhaps a blinding desire to invade Iraq). For $44 billion dollars a year, this administration still had to set up a small separate operation inside the Pentagon, Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans, to search for the “intelligence” that would take them where they wanted to go anyway.
If the IC actually worked as an effective intelligence delivery system, we would be a genius nation, a Mensa among states. We would have an invaluable secret repository of knowledge that would be the equivalent of the destroyed ancient Library of Alexandria (which reputedly collected all the knowledge in the then-known world). And you would have to wonder, looking back on the last years: In that case, how exactly could we be quite so dumb?
But let’s consider the obvious: While undoubtedly filled with hard-working, thoughtful intelligence analysts, producing — sometimes — on-target intelligence, the IC is not in any normal sense a system for the delivery of “intelligence”; that is, operative information through which our leaders could take in the world, its dangers and its possibilities. At the very least, that is only the most tertiary aspect of its operations. And yet, based on claims about the crucial nature of intelligence in our world, it continues to expand without cease.
If not primarily for intelligence, then what is it for, if anything? Does anyone know? Does it even matter? Those are certainly questions worth asking. What we lack, in helping us begin to answer them, is an American John Le Carr, who could bring back in striking form from the strange netherworld of the IC, as Le Carr so devastatingly did from the Cold War world of superpower espionage, a real sense of the lay of the land.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.