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Multiple intelligence agencies: a blessing or a recipe for failure?

Intelligence experts tend to agree that it is better to decentralize intelligence bodies, so that no one agency has access to too much power. Has the US taken this too far?

Dov Lachman
18 November 2014

Both enlightened democracies and autocrats who hold their own hegemony in high regard have learned to divide institutions and those people who know too much. The goals, operations, and exploits of East Germany’s Stasi, Romania’s Securitate, and even US intelligence agencies have caused most democracies in the free world to adopt a model in which no intelligence organization can possess too much power, lest “the dummy would rise up against its own maker.”

Decentralizing of intelligence operations is a normal process for modern liberal democracies looking to prevent an intelligence agency from gaining too much power. However, the way in which a single intelligence service could evolve into dominating an entire country is a far cry from separating and demarcating intelligence missions over too many different bodies. In the United States, the most powerful country on earth, it takes 17 autonomous bodies to provide intelligence. This demonstrates that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the concept of intelligence. The way in which the United States came to have 17 intelligence agencies is the result of a lengthy historic development, and it is interesting to analyze and interpret within the framework of American history.

It is only proper to start by citing the advantages of having multiple intelligence agencies, apart from the old Roman wisdom of 'divide and rule.' Here, Edward Snowden, the person who caused a massive headache for US intelligence bodies, is probably the best example. The risk exemplified in Snowden’s case, in which one person had too much access to information, is far greater at the organizational level. Thus, compartmentalization between entities, though they are in charge of close fields, is very much advised.

The United States has an intelligence community comprising 17 major intelligence agencies. The federal budget of US intelligence consists of two major parts. The first is national intelligence, which is an appropriation for all domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering services. The second is military intelligence, which caters to all military agencies: the Navy, US Air Force and US Army. At the end of fiscal year 2013, the combined budget for intelligence reached $72 billion.

Budget 1

U.S. Federal Intelligence Budget. Dov Lachman. Public Domain.

Each of the 17 bodies that make up the US intelligence community has a highly specialized role, clear goals, and an independent field of operations. Clearly, their respective missions, along with their required set of skills, are highly divergent. For instance, TFI, the Treasury Department’s independent intelligence body focusing on financial issues, applies completely different tools and skills than CGI – Coast Guard Intelligence. As a result of these distinctions, there is almost no common interface between intelligence bodies. Even so, there are some intelligence bodies whose theatres of operation are nearly parallel, so much so that they follow nearly identical protocols.

This list of 17 independent U.S. intelligence agencies does not even take into account the many other near-autonomous bodies, such as the New York Police Department (NYPD), Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP).

Though they are not part and parcel of the US intelligence community, these intelligence bodies have many and varied requirements for their ongoing operations and they are potential providers of a great deal of high quality intelligence information. The intelligence gathered, for instance across US prisons, which in total house some 7 million inmates each year, could be highly beneficial to other independent intelligence agencies. One can only assume what part of this flurry of data reaches other organizations, and at what frequency and quality.

us intel budget 2

Spending categories of the U.S. Federal Intelligence Budget. Dov Lachman. Public domain.

Each intelligence organization, much like business or production arrays, practices a three-stage procedure of input, processing and output. First, they obtain raw, varied intelligence data (input). They, they conduct analysis and assessment (processing). Finally, the collected information is presented (output).

In almost all intelligence organizations, the input and output processes are much the same. The intuitive question this raises is why is there no cooperation or intersection across the board between these intelligence bodies at any of the processes in the chain of intelligence – given that the 'means of production' are 17 fold?

Let us consider the drug problem, a major menace that plagues American society no less than ISIS or al-Qaeda. A multitude of intelligence bodies and sub-agencies all focus on this same problem: reducing the spread and use of illegal drugs.

The chain of handling drugs is relevant to each intelligence body in the US, and each of them can address the issue. Of course, there is America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Also, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) can demarcate the cultivation and production areas as well as those engaged in growing and producing; the National Ground Intelligence (NGI) will map and produce aerial imaging; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) can do the same from space; the TFI will map the financial ties which finance drugs and then launder the proceeds; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can provide local intelligence within the US concerning supply and collection networks.

It is safe to assume that the level of cooperation between these intelligence bodies will not be high, particularly since each of these organizations, except for the DEA, has a rather low level of interest in the drug epidemic sweeping across the US. In the case of the drug problem, the fact that accountability and oversight are spread over so many entities has resulted in US cities overflowing with drugs.

In addition to the problem of different interests, there is also the issue of numerous organizational and technological entities doing the same thing. Had there been just one intelligence body, rather than a few, the cost to the taxpayer would have been reduced and the intelligence product itself could have been improved and streamlined. The reason for this is that each of America’s 17 intelligence organizations is busy with the same actions and tasks: encrypting and fielding agents, engaging communications and computing, recruitment, training and certification, applying technological means, camouflage, transport, protection, security and much more. By reducing the number of agencies, the US government could lower the budget allocated to intelligence work without compromising much in the way of security.

Seventeen different intelligence organizations are tantamount to an uncontrollable hydra that cannot be properly managed.

Some American intelligence agencies have been in operation since the beginning of the twentieth century. Since 9/11, though, political and military processes that were relevant a decade ago have changed significantly. Most armed conflicts in the past decade are been waged between regular armies and guerrilla groups, mostly faith-inspired combatants. This trend is expected to continue and intensify in coming years. Intelligence bodies that were established with a frame of mind now a century old cannot provide any actionable, efficient solutions to contemporary problems. Seventeen different intelligence organizations are tantamount to an uncontrollable hydra that cannot be properly managed. This monstrosity cannot produce any viable intelligence that could assist western democracies in retaining the liberties they stand for.

What is the root cause of this inability to control “the dummy that has risen up against its own maker?” The failure to predict certain events and misinterpreting the importance of political, geopolitical, social, and religious process in the past decade are primarily to blame for the fiasco.

It is important to consider whether the supreme goal of US intelligence organizations has ever been defined. Given that “providing early and general information to defend the US” is the proper, albeit very general, definition, it is possible to revolutionize global intelligence conceptualization. After identifying global threats that the administration would like to tackle, it is possible to define intelligence targets and expected results. By better focusing on threats and expectations, it will then be possible to reduce the number of intelligence bodies by up to two thirds.

A reduced number of intelligence bodies – perhaps five - would be thematically and geographically oriented. These agencies would supply the layers of input and output, each in its respective field of expertise, and also handle the processing layer.

Carrying out the tasks of processing intelligence ought to be done orthogonally. Dealing with multiple intelligence issues from many and varied perspectives, and no longer in a one-dimensional or two-dimensional way.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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