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Huge Fly Swatter, No Flies: Top Secret America's Vast Counterterrorism Machine | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Huge Fly Swatter, No Flies: Top Secret America's Vast Counterterrorism Machine

Not surprisingly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is complaining about the Washington Post's blockbuster series, "Top Secret America," whose first installment appeared today. (You can read the whole series, as it appears, at the Post's special site, TopSecretAmerica.com.) Laughably, the ODNI says:

The reporting does not reflect the Intelligence Community we know.… We have reformed the [intelligence community] in ways that have improved the quality, quantity, regularity, and speed of our support to policymakers, warfighters, and homeland defenders, and we will continue our reform efforts.  We provide oversight, while also encouraging initiative.  We work constantly to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies, while preserving a degree of intentional overlap among agencies to strengthen analysis, challenge conventional thinking, and eliminate single points of failure.

But as the Post makes clear, the world of Top Secret America has grown like Topsy Secret America. Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, who wrote the series, report that the post-9/11 apparatus has exploded to include at least 1,271 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private contractors in 10,000 locations, with 854,000 people holding top-secret security clearances. The intelligence budget for the United States has risen from $30 billion a year in 2001 to $75 billion today, and that only scratches the surface. And they report:

Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations, and 26 after that; and 31 more, and 32 more, and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

What's missing from the story, however, is any assessment of the threat against which this vast and growing machinery is arrayed. The Post notes that twenty-five separate agencies have been set up to track terrorist financing, which admirably shows the overlapping and redundant nature of the post-9/11 ballooning of agencies and organizations targeting terrorism. But the article barely mentions that there are hardly any terrorists to track.

The Post points out that among the recent, nuisance-level attacks by Muslim extremists—the Fort Hood shooter, the underwear bomber, the Times Square incident—the intelligence machine failed to detect or stop them. True. That's an indictment of the counterterrorism machinery that has become a staple for critics of the outsize budgets and wasteful bureaucracy that has been created since 9/11.

The core problem, which the Post doesn't address, is that Al Qaeda and its affiliates, its sympathizers, and even self-starting terrorist actors who aren't part of Al Qaeda itself, are a tiny and manageable problem. Yet the apparatus that has been created is designed to meet nothing less than an existential threat. Even at the height of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and its allies were engaged in a brutal, country-by-country battle across Asia, Africa and Latin America to combat the United States, NATO, and American hegemonism, there was nothing like the post-9/11 behemoth in existence. A thousand smart intelligence analysts, a thousand smart FBI and law enforcement officers, and a few hundred Special Operations military folk are all that's needed to deal with the terrorism threat. It's been hugely overblown. Yet in the Post story, sage-like gray beards of the counterterrorism machine stroke their chins and pontificate about how difficult it is to coordinate all these agencies, absorb all the data, read all the reports and absorb the 1.7 billion e-mails and phone calls that are picked up every day by the National Security Agency. It's an "Emperor's New Clothes" problem. The emperor isn't naked, but no one, really, is threatening him.

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