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July 2010, Week 4

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Huge Fly Swatter, No Flies: Top Secret America's Vast
Counterterrorism Machine 
Robert Dreyfuss
The Nation
July 19, 2010
http://www.thenation.com/blog/37675/huge-fly-swatter-no-flies-top-secret-americas-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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