US Intelligence Community Seal

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The Washington Post’s series on the metastasizing U.S. intelligence community is an excellent piece of reporting, and illustrates how the day-to-day flux of American politics and ideological debates are becoming increasingly disengaged from what is actually happening in the world (if they ever were engaged at all).

What’s sad about this series – at least, the first installment – is how unsurprising it is.  Tim Shorrock and others have reported on this trend for years. But even if you were unaware of the details that the Post so expertly catalogues, the broad contours of what’s happening have long been obvious. The United States has a vast and growing secret security apparatus whose structure no one understands, that is in effect accountable to no one.

This is a two-headed beast where each head doesn’t know what the other is doing. It is a recipe for all kinds of abuses and snafus. (My own modest foray into the shadow world of contracting a few years ago showed an impossibly complex bureaucratic web around a tiny, incompetently managed spyplane program.) Precisely because lines of authority are crossed and muddled, it’s easy for those responsible to escape being held accountable. That is, if we even hear about it. In such a system the primary aim of government secrecy often ceases to be the national security and becomes a tool of CYA and turf protection.

This state of affairs is both outrageous and dangerous, and yet there is no particular political impetus right now to rein this in, to make our intelligence apparatus behave in a sensible, effective way, or even to understand it better.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Post-9/11, the United States cannot spend too much, politically speaking, on security. If a politician voices skepticism about where all that money’s going, s/he risks attack for being insufficiently vigilant about America’s security. Terrorism aside, such a system becomes self-perpetuating: money in politics attracts more money, some of which goes to lobbyists whose job it is to protect and expand that money flow. And this is one giant gravity well of federal dollars.

This is a classic problem of runaway big government, compounded by the out-of-control growth of private contracting. Yet we don’t hear Republicans complaining about it. It’s a threat to civil liberties and the reputation of government itself, yet we don’t hear a peep from Democrats either.

One omission of the Post series thus far is an assessment of what the long-term problems of such a system will be (besides straightforward bureaucratic confusion and waste). The story identifies the role of bureaucratic snarls in failing to anticipate terror attacks by individuals, but to be honest, those are always a bit hard to judge.

Glenn Greenwald identifies some of these problems – shadowy, powerful security agencies taking aim at Americans; a breakdown in security priorities; a decline in security itself. What I think is likely to happen in the short run is the inexorable growth of the incompetent security state – the no-fly list times a thousand. At some point abuses and snafus will break out into the open, and Congress will attempt some kind of reform. But it appears this system may already be un-reformable.

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