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Why This Gigantic "Intelligence" Apparatus?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 by


[From the Beacon blog of the Independent Institute (2010).]

On July 19, 2010, the Washington Post published the first of three large reports by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin on the dimensions of the gigantic US apparatus of "intelligence" activities being undertaken to combat terrorist acts against the United States, such as the 9/11 attacks. To say that this activity amounts to mobilizing every police officer in the country to stop street fights in Camden only begins to suggest its almost-unbelievable disproportion to the alleged threat.

Among Priest and Arkin's findings from a two-year study are the following:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

[We] discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

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 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret 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.

Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

According to retired admiral Dennis C. Blair, formerly the director of national intelligence, after 9/11 "the attitude was, if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing." I submit that this explanation does not cut to the heart of the matter. As it stands, it suggests a sort of mindless desire to pile mountains of money, technology, and personnel on top of an already-enormous mountain of money, technology, and personnel for no reason other than the vague notion that more must be better. In my view, national politics does not work in that way.

As Priest and Arkin report, "The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 2 ½ times the size it was on September 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs." Virtually everyone the reporters consulted told them in effect that "the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending." To be sure, they received more than they could spend responsibly, but not more than they were eager to spend irresponsibly. After all, it's not as if they were spending their own money.

"The most plausible reason why so few attacks have occurred is that very few persons have been trying to carry them out."

Why would these hundreds of organizations and contracting companies be willing to take gigantic amounts of the taxpayers' money when everyone agrees that the money cannot be spent sensibly and that the system already in place cannot function effectively or efficiently to attain its ostensible purpose? The question answers itself. It's loot for the taking, and there has been no shortage of takers. Indeed, these stationary bandits continue to demand more money each year.

And for what? The announced goal is to identify terrorists and eliminate them or prevent them from carrying out their nefarious acts. This is simultaneously a small task and an impossible one.

It is small because the number of persons seeking to carry out a terrorist act of substantial consequence against the United States and in a position to do so cannot be more than a handful. If the number were greater, we would have seen many more attacks or attempted attacks during the past decade — after all, the number of possible targets is virtually unlimited, and the attackers might cause some form of damage in countless ways. The most plausible reason why so few attacks or attempted attacks have occurred is that very few persons have been trying to carry them out. (I refer to genuine attempts, not to the phony-baloney schemes planted in the minds of simpletons by government undercover agents and then trumpeted to the heavens when the FBI "captures" the unfortunate victims of the government's entrapment.)

So the true dimension of the terrorism problem that forms the excuse for these hundreds of programs of official predation against the taxpayers is small — not even in the same class with, say, reducing automobile-accident or household-accident deaths by 20 percent.

Yet, at the same time, the antiterrorism task is impossible because terrorism is a simple act available in some form to practically any determined adult with access to Americans and their property at home or abroad. It is simply not possible to stop all acts of terrorism if potential terrorists have been given a sufficient grievance to motivate their wreaking some form of havoc against Americans. However, it is silly to make the prevention of all terrorist acts the goal. What can't be done won't be done, regardless of how many people and how much money one devotes to doing it. We can, though, endure some losses from terrorism in the same way that we routinely endure some losses from accidents, diseases, and ordinary crime.

The sheer idiocy of paying legions of twenty-something grads of Harvard and Yale — youngsters who cannot speak Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun, or any of the other languages of the areas they purport to be analyzing and who know practically nothing of the history, customs, folkways, and traditions of these places — indicates that no one seriously expects the promised payoff in intelligence to emerge from the effort. The whole business is akin to sending a blind person to find a needle inside a maze buried somewhere in a hillside.

That the massive effort is utterly uncoordinated and scarcely able to communicate one part's "findings" to another only strengthens the conclusion that the goal is not stopping terrorism, but getting the taxpayers' money and putting it into privileged pockets. Even if the expected damage from acts of terrorism against the United States were $10 billion per year, which seems much too high a guess, it makes no sense to spend more than $75 billion every year to prevent it — and it certainly makes no sense to spend any money only pretending to prevent it.

What we see here is not really an "intelligence" or counterterrorism operation at all. It's a rip-off, plain and simple, fed by irrational fear and continually stoked by the government plunderers who are exercising the power and raking in the booty to "fight terrorism."