One interesting conclusion that emerges from The Washington Post’s revelation Thursday of the secret “black budget” for intelligence activities is that the United States doesn’t have many secrets anymore – not in the age of WikiLeaks and omnipresent whistle-blowers. It’s only because of the forbearance of Post editors that all 178 pages of this top-secret “Talent-Keyhole” document were not blasted to the world.
The demonstrated inability of the U.S. government to keep secrets causes obvious problems for the intelligence agencies, which exist to steal other peoples’ classified goodies and protect their own. But it’s not so clear that this world of leaks threatens the security of the American republic. That’s because the very meaning of secrecy is changing in a world of transparent social media, where it must be assumed that every keystroke and GPS location may be captured by someone.
I write this reluctantly, as someone who favors a strong intelligence community for the United States that can protect the country against real threats from abroad. But if there’s one theme that emerges from these documents, it’s that the U.S. has been spending an awful lot more for intelligence, especially at the CIA, without getting enough in return. What’s needed is better management, rather than more secrecy.
“Secrecy, compartmentation, and overclassification today are used to conceal malfeasance, systemic corruption, and intelligence shortfalls,” argues John Maguire, a career CIA operations officer who retired several years ago. I hear similar criticisms from other former officers who think a leaner, better-managed CIA would be more effective.
The top-line revelations in the “black budget” concern the sharp increase in spending for the CIA, which requested $14.7 billion in 2013, or nearly 50 percent more than the $10.8 billion request for the “big ear” National Security Agency or the $10.3 billion for the “big eye” National Reconnaissance Office. This spending mix reflected a significant rebalancing of U.S. intelligence collection, which traditionally was tilted toward technical systems and away from the cloak-and-dagger guys. In 1994, for example, the CIA was budgeted only $4.8 billion.
What has the public been getting for its money? Of the $52 billion classified budget, 39 percent goes for what’s described as “strategic intelligence and warning,” which sounds in part like a holdover from the Cold War. The next largest chunk, 33 percent, went to “combat violent extremism.” And this is one instance where I would guess that the public has mostly been getting its money’s worth.
The CIA’s counterterrorism center has had notable success over the past decade, at a time when Iraq and Afghanistan showed the limits of conventional military power. The world is understandably troubled by U.S. use of armed drones, but judgments must recognize their utility in battlefields where no other reliable weapon has been available.
The intelligence community’s dilemma in the modern era is reflected in one fascinating revelation of the black budget. According to the Post’s account, the NSA planned to investigate at least 4,000 of its employees and contractors in 2013, thanks in part to new software that could detect “anomalous” behavior by the workforce. Oops, evidently that didn’t turn out too well: It seems that Hawaii, where Edward Snowden was working as a contractor, was one of the few NSA locations where the anomaly detector wasn’t hooked up.
How do you run an organization where 4,000 of your employees are suspect? I fear that if the NSA tries to impose ever-more stringent controls, this will create even more disgruntled workers and a larger pool of anomalies.
In a world where nothing is reliably secret, which nations will have an advantage? Some might argue it will be the true police states such as Russia (Snowden’s absurd refuge) or China that will be able to muzzle their populations and protect the crown jewels.
But I think the opposite is likely to be true: The beneficiaries in a no-secrets world will be relatively open societies such as the United States that are slowly developing a culture of accountability and disclosure for their intelligence agencies, however painful the process may be. The fewer secrets, the less to protect.
DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.