Funding competition reduces intelligence sharing
Who is the blame for the September 11, 2001, attacks on America? That’s a no-brainer. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization are to blame.
Who should be blamed for not detecting the 9/11 plot before it was carried out? While the Carter and the Clinton Administrations are to blame for downgrading our human intelligence capabilities, the underlying problem is caused by the way Congress goes about the funding of our intelligence services.
But first, the virtual destruction of our ability to recruit and operate “spies” in foreign countries began with the congressional committee headed by the late Senator Frank Church (D) of Idaho. President Jimmy Carter and his Director of Central Intelligence, Admiral Stansfield Turner, finished the job of putting the U.S. out of the human “spy” business by opting, instead, for high-tech satellite imagery and high-tech communications intercept technology.
Unfortunately, Bill Clinton gave our intelligence community the final blow by refusing meetings with his own Director of Central Intelligence, and by a White House decree that only “spies” with clean human rights records could be recruited.
Moreover, Bill Clinton was poorly served by his FBI Director, Lewis Freeh, whose first act on taking office was to remove the computer from his desk. Freeh, a self-confessed computerphobe, did nothing to improve the FBI’s information processing capabilities and did nothing to improve inter-agency intelligence sharing.
Only 30 days in office on 9/11, current FBI Director, Robert Mueller, cannot be blamed for that tragedy; however, former Attorney General, Janet Reno, and for FBI Director, Lewis Freeh, should explain why they were wasting FBI resources at Ruby Ridge and Waco instead of focusing on real threats such as terrorism. Ironically, the FBI atrocities at Ruby Ridge and Waco prompted the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
But the larger problem is the way Congress goes about the business of funding our intelligence community. While rewarding past success with more funding seems to be an idea as American as mom’s apple pie, the system operates to punish information sharing between our intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The way the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency and others get their funding is by competing with each other for Congressional dollars. In short, the more credit an intelligence agency can claim for successful intelligence operations, the more money that agency receives.
What could be more American than to reward success and to punish failure? But so doing activates the Law of Unintended Consequences.
For example, let us say one of our intelligence services develops an agent-in-place who tips us off to an impending attack against the United States. Logic would suggest the “take” from this agent would be immediately and widely shared throughout the entire intelligence community. Wrong. The agency “running” this particular agent will have two fears. First, that sharing this intelligence might result in the compromise and death of their agent. Secondly, sharing this intelligence might spoil the chance for the agency “running” the agent to go before Congress and claim total and complete credit for foiling the terrorist plot. Getting credit means more Congressional funding.
While it is necessary and prudent for Congress to place limits on what we spend to gather and process intelligence, a finite intelligence budget eventually creates a zero-sum contest between our intelligence agencies. While competition is good, it can also have the bad effect of stifling inter-agency information sharing and cooperation. Unless Congress and the Bush Administration can develop a better to way to allocate intelligence dollars, this problem is not likely to go away.
Meanwhile, two of the Butchers of Baghdad refused arrest and were killed in a three-hour firefight. We honor uniformed soldiers who fight under the Rules of Land Warfare and the Geneva Conventions by not displaying them in death. But Saddam’s sons were war criminals, not proper soldiers, so the decision to show their bodies to the people they persecuted wasn’t difficult to make.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, served as an intelligence officer in Europe during the height of the Cold War.
©2003. William Hamilton.