The US Intelligence Community Is Bigger Than Ever, but Is It Worth It?

The U.S. spends nearly $1 trillion on national security programs and agencies annually, more than any other nation in the world. Yet despite this enormous investment, there is not enough evidence to show the public that these programs are keeping Americans any safer – especially in the intelligence community. Excessive government secrecy prohibits the public and oversight agencies alike from determining whether our expensive intelligence enterprise is worth the investment.

The United States intelligence community is comprised of 17 federal agencies assigned an array of missions relating to national defense, foreign relations, homeland security and law enforcement. These agencies form just the foundation of a sprawling enterprise that incorporates intelligence and non-intelligence components of many other federal agencies, state and local police, including fire and emergency response, international government partners, as well as private companies and organizations.

These entities connect through an array of information sharing platforms and portals, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team, 71 FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, 56 Field Intelligence Groups, and 78 state and local intelligence fusion centers, which can incorporate military and private sector participants. Information collected by any of them can be distributed through official information sharing systems like the Defense Department’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet; the U.S. Navy’s Law Enforcement Information Exchange, or LInX; the Department of Homeland Security Information Network, or HSIN; the Director of National Intelligence’s Information Sharing Environment, or ISE; and the FBI’s eGuardian, National Data Exchange, or N-DEx; National Crime Information Center, or NCIC; and Law Enforcement Online, or LEO, among others.

FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials operate several private sector intelligence sharing organizations as well, including the Domestic Security Advisory Council, InfraGard, and the National Cyber Forensics and Training Alliance. They have established formal “strategic partnerships” with certain businesses and universities for counter-intelligence and counterterrorism purposes. Private industries and “key” resources the government deemed “critical infrastructure” have established 18 Information Sharing and Analysis Centers. In 2010, the Washington Post documented almost 2,000 private companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Over 5 million government employees and private contractors now hold security clearances giving them access to classified information.

U.S. intelligence agencies also have close working relationships with international partners, including the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the “five eyes” agreement. They share intelligence with other nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia through memoranda of understanding, or other less formal agreements. The U.S. military maintains from 598 to 1,000 bases and installations in at least 40 foreign countries.

The annual intelligence budget exceeds $70 billion per year, but that figure represents just a small portion of what the U.S. spends on national defense and homeland security. In a recent interview, Ben Friedman of the Cato Institute does the math:

The nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight and the Columbia Journalism Review back up Friedman’s estimate that the U.S. now spends roughly $1 trillion a year for national security. This figure dwarfs the combined defense budgets of all possible contenders, combined.

Friedman argues that the threats we face today don’t justify such profligate spending. Protected by oceans and bordered by friendly nations, there’s little risk of a foreign invasion. Deaths from wars and other political violence abroad have sharply decreased as well. Terrorism and violent crime in the U.S. are at historically low levels.

Yet despite the relative safety our nation enjoys and the enormous effort and expense dedicated toward strengthening U.S. security, Americans feel less safe than any time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So the question isn’t just whether our national security measures are necessary, but whether they work. Do our intelligence agencies actually improve U.S. security and give policy makers the best available information to make wise policy decisions?

Unfortunately, the excessive secrecy shrouding intelligence activities means Americans have little public information from which to evaluate whether the intelligence enterprise is worth the investment. Friedman explains how too much secrecy undermines effective policy making, and makes government “stupid:”

There are many culprits we can blame for spreading undue public fear, from a sensationalist media to manipulative politicians. But a significant part of the problem is that intelligence officials are incentivized to exaggerate threats, which risks the misapplication of security resources and poor national security policies.

Once the threat assessment process is corrupted this way, resources will be misdirected as policy makers overemphasize threats that resonate with the public, while ignoring ones that don’t, leaving us vulnerable even as security resources are squandered. The FBI’s 2004 warnings about increasing mortgage fraud fell on deaf ears in the intelligence establishment, for example, which waited until 2009 before it identified the resulting global economic meltdown as the primary threat to national security.

Americans’ ability to hold our government officials accountable for national security policy decisions requires public information about the threats and the measures necessary to protect us from them. As Friedman has argued, there isn’t a simple formula for defending American security, “[b]ut skepticism — toward both what we are told to fear and the defenses we are sold to confront it — is a good start.”