Intelligence-gathering in U.S. is a vast, baffling network
Report finds that agencies are drowning in top-secret data
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, unwieldy and secretive that no one knows how much it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs it has or how many agencies do the same work.
These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post, which also concludes that after nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine. The investigation’s other findings include:
Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 11⁄ times
2 as many people as live in Washington, hold topsecret security clearances.
In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.
Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt, which was thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.
They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation’s security.
“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that — not just for the (director of national intelligence), but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense — is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview last week.
In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials — called Super Users — are able to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.
“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other said that for his first briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled “Stop!” in frustration.
Gates, in his interview, said that he does not believe the system has become too big to manage but that getting precise data is sometimes difficult. Singling out the growth of intelligence units in the Defense Department, he said he intends to review those programs for waste. “Nine years after 9/11, it makes a lot of sense to sort of take a look at this and say, ‘OK, we’ve built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?’ ” he said.
In an interview before he resigned as the director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis Blair said he did not believe there was overlap and redundancy in the intelligence world. “Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers,” he said.
Weeks later, he mused about the Post’s findings. “After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country,” he said. “The attitude was, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth overdoing.”
Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.
The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, which is 21⁄
2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. The figure doesn’t include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.
The Post’s investigation was based on govern- ment documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking websites and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because they feared retaliation at work. The Post’s online database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records.
At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106.
Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed $40 billion beyond what was in the federal budget to fortify domestic defenses and launch a global offensive against al Qaeda. It followed that up with an additional $36.5 billion in 2002 and $44 billion in 2003. That was only a beginning.
At least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
With so many more employees, units and organizations, the lines of responsibility began to blur. To remedy this, the George W. Bush administration and Congress decided to create an agency in 2004 with overarching responsibilities called the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to bring the colossal effort under control.
Though that was the idea, Washington has its own ways.
The first problem was that the law passed by Congress did not give the director clear legal or budgetary authority over intelligence matters, which meant he wouldn’t have power over the agencies he was supposed to control.
The second problem: Even before the first director, Ambassador John Negroponte, was on the job, the turf battles began. The Defense Department shifted billions of dollars out of one budget and into another so that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence could not touch it, according to two senior officials who watched the process.
The CIA reclassified some of its most sensitive information at a higher level so the National Counterterrorism Center staff, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, would not be allowed to see it, said former in- telligence officers involved.
Today, many officials who work in the intelligence agencies say they remain unclear about what the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is in charge of. The office has made some progress, especially in intelligence-sharing, information technology and budget reform. The director of national intelligence and his managers hold interagency meetings every day to promote collaboration.
But improvements have been overtaken by volume, as the increased flow of intelligence data overwhelms the system’s ability to analyze and use it. Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those 1.7 billion intercepts into 70 databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which has enough analysts and translators for all this work.
The Hasan case
Last fall, prosecutors say, Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, killing 13 people and wounding 30 more. In the days after the shootings, information emerged about Hasan’s increasingly strange behavior at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he had trained as a psychiatrist and warned commanders that they should allow Muslims to leave the Army or risk “adverse events.”
He had also exchanged e-mails with a well-known radical cleric in Yemen being monitored by U.S. intelligence.
But none of this reached the one organization charged with handling counterintelligence investigations within the Army. Just 25 miles up the road from Walter Reed, the Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group had been doing little to search the ranks for potential threats.
Instead, the 902nd’s commander had decided to turn the unit’s attention to assessing general terrorist affiliations in the United States, even though the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces were already doing this work in great depth.
The 902nd had quietly been gathering information on Hezbollah, Iranian Republican Guard and al Qaeda student organizations in the U.S.
The assessment “didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already,” the Army’s senior counterintelligence officer at the Pentagon said.
Secrecy and lack of coordination have allowed organizations — the 902nd in this case — to work on issues others were already tackling rather than take on the much more challenging job of trying to identify potential jihadist sympathizers within the Army.
Dennis Blair denied overlap before retiring.
Nidal Hasan left clues that Army unit missed.
Robert Gates says he will check for waste.