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Media portrayal of bloated, ineffective intelligence services raises familiar issues

A three-part report published in the Washington Post says America's intelligence apparatus is too large to function well. That conclusion rings bells for people who know their way around the field.

Janitor scrubbing a CIA loso

A newspaper report says the intelligence services suffer from information overload

The bigger the ship, the harder it is to manoeuvre effectively - that's one way to summarize the conclusions about the CIA in a piece that has begun appearing this week in one of America's most respected newspapers.

According to the report, entitled "Top Secret America," some 850,000 people have access to top-secret documents. And to makes matters worse, those people and the divisions of the CIA they work for don't always communicate well.

"It's not impossible for [the CIA] to be effective but no one knows whether it is," one of the article's authors, Dana Priest, said on a popular morning television show in the US. "It's become so big and so unwieldy, and also so disjointed, that people who run it don't actually know how many people are inside it and how much it costs. They don't know how effective it is, and there's a tremendous amount of wasteful redundancy."

Government organizations were doing the same thing as other government organizations without even knowing about it, she said.

Priest went on to cite the fact that no less than 25 units of the CIA are charged with tracking money going to terrorist organizations. Often, Priest said, one group didn't even know of others' existence.

"We had on the record interviews with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta, and Gates, for example, said he had trouble getting data on his own and was frustrated by that," Priest asserted.

Misplaced emphasis

Man going through an airport security check

Technology doesn't always work wonders in preventing terrorism

US intelligence services, too, have suffered some spectacular failures. Most recently, as Priest pointed out in her television interview, the enormous resources the US devoted to fighting terrorism failed to stop the so-called "Christmas bomber" from entering US airspace.

On December 25, 2009, a Nigerian Muslim Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was caught trying to detonate a bomb aboard an airplane landing in Detroit airport. Despite intelligence indicating Abdulmutallab was a possible terrorist, his name somehow never got added to either the US Terrorist Screening Database or its No-Fly List.

Guido Steinberg is a former expert on terrorism for the German Chancellor's Office and currently a researcher at the German Institute for International Security Affairs. He says size is not the only issue.

"I see a number of problems," Steinberg told Deutsche Welle. "One of them was the faith in setting up new government agencies instead of using ones that already existed. New bureaucracies spend years dealing with their own organization. And there is also the over-reliance on expensive technology over human intelligence, which was a problem identified by the 9/11 commission."

Steinberg points out that the explosion in the amount of resources the United States devotes to security is aimed primarily at Islamist terrorism. And human intelligence in that area begins with speaking the same language as the people one wants to keep under scrutiny.

"I know myself from running a research group on Islamist radicalism how difficult it is to find linguistic experts, for instance, people who speak Uzbeki," Steinberg said. "And I wonder how much of the 75 billion dollar annual budget is being spent on that."

The privatization issue

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

One goal is to intercept people like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before they strike


The Washington Post article also criticizes the CIA's reliance on private companies to do much of the work. According to the report, some 1931 for-profit companies are involved in programs to fight terrorism and maintain domestic security.

"Contractors have a different motive," Priest said. "Even people who have the best of motivations for the United States work for companies whose main task is to make a profit. That's not wrong but it means they're not going to push for pulling back programs. They're always going to push for more and not less."

The American government's use of private security and military companies has come under increasing fire in recent years for being inefficient and open to abuse. The same concerns apply to the intelligence sector.

"I think privatization is very dubious, and I can't imagine how it works in practice," Steinberg said. "For example, how is an employee of a private firm given a security clearance to read top-secret documents?"

The issues raised by the Washington Post article aren't new. Many of the points the authors highlight are the same ones that have been debated since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Author: Silke Hasselmann/Jefferson Chase
Editor: Michael Knigge

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