Dim Intelligence

By Dreyfuss, Robert | The American Prospect, October 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

Dim Intelligence


Dreyfuss, Robert, The American Prospect


What Did We Get for All That Money?

IF THERE IS A SINGLE MAJOR INtelligence failure to have emerged from the rubble of the twin towers, it is America's inability over the better part of a decade to track down and eliminate Osama bin Laden, who has been the U.S. Public Enemy Number One since the early 1990s. Arrayed against this malevolent David has been a veritable American Goliath of military, intelligence, and antiterrorism assets, an apparatus that has failed utterly to bring him to justice--or bring justice to him. And though the reasons for that failure will be dissected over and over in the next few months--by congressional committees, government task forces, and the private sector--it is fair to say that one thing that the U.S. Goliath has not lacked is money.

In the five years since 1996, when Congress passed two major antiterrorism laws, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, the United States has spent more than $50 billion to fight terrorism, including $11 billion last year alone. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's antiterrorism budget, part of that total, rose sixfold during the Clinton administration, to $609 million in 2000. At the same time, annual intelligence spending by the United States since the end of the Cold War has hovered at just under $30 billion, only a small portion of which is included in the antiterrorism budget. The best-known spy agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI's National Security Division, together absorb only about one-seventh of that $30 billion, with the vast bulk being spent on the high-tech satellites, military surveillance, and eaves-dropping systems run by the Pentagon, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

As the ruins still smolder in New York and Washington, it's time to ask: What are we getting for all that money? Some will rush to add still more funds to boost our counterterrorist agencies and spies. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is already calling for more money to beef up the intelligence agencies. But America's security establishment doesn't need to get richer; it needs to get smarter. There is substantial reason to believe that our spies and terrorism fighters could do better--with less money, not more. "I presume there will be an increase in spending on the intelligence agencies, disproportionately concentrated in counterintelligence and human intelligence," says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a veteran analyst of the spy agencies. "And I doubt it's going to do much good."

Consider, first, antiterrorism. Not a few critics, including the General Accounting Office (GAO), have made the point that America's antiterrorism effort was assembled helter-skelter in the wake of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and then the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. From modest beginnings, spending doubled and redoubled, far too fast to ensure sensible deployment of the money. Instead, intelligence spending was marked by waste on one hand and by an expensive concentration on the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism on the other. Throughout the 1990s, GAO reports on the terrorism battle documented cases of misspent dollars, overlapping jurisdictions, duplication of effort, and mismanagement. Some of that antiterrorism spending was certainly spent correctly, such as millions of dollars expended on the tightening of security at American embassies after the 1998 bin Laden-linked bombings of U.S. missions in Kenya and Tanzania. But much of the expenditure was devoted toward building up resources against what many experts say is the remote and exceedingly unlikely threat of so-called weapons of mass destruction. "Federal efforts to combat terrorism have been based on worst-case scenarios which are out of balance with the threat," concluded the GAO, adding that federal spending on antiterrorism was "taking place in the absence of sound threat and risk assessment. …

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