Spy agency insiders agree: shrinking the "intelligence community" will lead to better public safety outcomes

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper is telling anyone who will listen that the government shutdown is threatening US national security. No, he isn’t talking about the low income women and children who risk hunger as a result of WIC and food stamps cuts. Clapper is ostensibly worried that terrorists will be able to strike the US or its interests because 70 percent of civilian analysts in the so-called ‘intelligence community’ have been sent home on furlough. 

But does the ‘intelligence community’, bloated after ten years of budget increases and the creation of new entities like the ODNI and the National Counterterrorism Center, actually work to Keep Us Safe, as Clapper claims? Or do some of its new mutations instead exist primarily because of bureaucratic self-interest? 

A newly published dissertation about how the National Counterterrorism Center works (or, rather, doesn’t work) undermines Clapper’s core claim about the relationship between the number of analysts at work and public safety outcomes. In fact, it suggests that the furlough might actually have the effect of making us safer.

After getting her foot in the door at the agency through a CIA graduate student fellowship, Bridget Rose Nolan, a sociology PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, worked at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) as a CIA analyst. Her dissertation, INFORMATION SHARING AND COLLABORATION IN THE UNITED STATES INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY: AN ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY OF THE NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER, is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the post-9/11 shake-up of the highly secretive, competitive shadow government known to insiders as the “intelligence community”. Her findings, based on extensive interviews with analysts from all of the major intelligence agencies, should send shock waves through congress.

Contra Clapper, the sociologist argues that there is too much information floating around, and that the size of the counterterrorism apparatus hinders its effectiveness. In fact, some analysts don't even know what they are supposed to be doing at work everyday. Nolan's thesis, then, paints a very different picture of the 'intelligence community' than the one we hear about from James "Not Wittingly" Clapper, and undermines his core claim about the relationship between the number of civilian analysts at work and public safety outcomes. 

What is the NCTC?

The NCTC was established as part of the reorganization of the intelligence agencies prompted by recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which studied the failures that led to the 2001 attacks on Washington and New York. Readers of this blog might recognize the NCTC as the holder of incredibly detailed dossiers on every living US person. It is also a center of targeting analysis for the CIA’s overseas drone operations. In other words: NCTC knows nearly everything about us, and it helps decide who will die at the end of US missile strikes.

While the ACLU and other civil liberties groups have long criticized the NCTC for centralizing federal government information about hundreds of millions of ordinary people, Nolan’s interest in the relatively new institution pertains to how officials can make it more effective at fighting terrorism. When she set out to conduct her research, she wanted to understand whether the NCTC was fulfilling its goals -- to break down information sharing barriers among the different spy agencies, and to facilitate inter-agency cooperation -- and if not, why not.

Her findings should be read and digested far and wide, particularly in the congressional intelligence committees and in the ‘intelligence community’ itself. They underscore a major criticism the ACLU has been shouting about for years: In addition to undermining our civil liberties, making the intelligence haystack bigger actually makes fighting terrorism more difficult.

Information overload and confusion 

Nolan, who appears to believe both in the mission of the NCTC and that the people who make up the ‘intelligence community’ are well-meaning patriots, realized that many of the changes made in the post-9/11 era -- including the creation of the Center itself -- made fighting terrorism more difficult, not less. For her research, she interviewed colleagues from various agencies that rotate employees through the NCTC. Lots of them said many of the same things: there is way too much information, there are too many analysts, and the overload in staff and data makes less likely the possibility that the counterterrorism analysts will be effective in stopping terrorism. 

On the information overload problem, one analyst told Nolan:

Right after 9/11 when I was at CTC [CIA’s Counterterrorism Center], I don’t want to exaggerate but I think we might have gotten a thousand emails a day. And if a crisis hits, the same thing could happen again easily, because people will send everything to everybody out of self-defense, even though that itself creates a problem.

The problem is that—that is a symptom and concrete example of the downside of information sharing...people drown in it. And as a consequence of too much information sharing, key pieces of information sharing may be ignored....It’s almost impossible to keep up with that volume. I think that everybody would give every email at least a cursory glance, out of mortal terror of missing something. But it doesn’t create an atmosphere of thoughtfulness.

Another analyst described how ‘information overload’ actually contributes to the segmentation of categories of data, and not the other way around. In other words, the more information there is, the more likely it is that the information will never reach the people who need it. The analyst put it like this:

[T]he number of databases keeps expanding in response to a greater volume of information, so that more information actually means more stove-piping. This creates a cycle in which the greater volume of information calls for even more segmentation and classification into manageable chunks that people can understand and computers can process.

The problem of volume is exacerbated by the defensive responses to 9/11 in which people began to send more and more information to each other out of “mortal terror” of missing something rather than sifting through it on their own. As a manager once told me, “You might as well just send it to be safe. People can always hit delete.” And of course, the issue of volume is intensified when more and more people are hired to work in the IC, as with the post-9/11 hiring surge.

Alarmingly, some of the analysts Nolan interviewed said they didn’t even know what they were supposed to do; they didn’t understand the purpose of their jobs.

I don’t even know what I’m doing on a day to day basis. We’re fighting the War on Terror. What does that actually mean? How do you specifically go about that day to day? Like, when we were fighting the Cold War, we were more sure then, I think. There was a country that we could point to and we knew we were fighting. Now it’s like, networks, there don’t seem to be countries anymore with this, and it’s really hard to know what winning this war would look like. 

A radical proposal to fix intelligence: fire people

While analysts might not know what their jobs are supposed to be about, many of them think that a first step towards reducing the information overload and clarifying roles and responsibilities would be to shrink the size of the ‘intelligence community’ -- exactly what James Clapper is now telling the US threatens our safety.

One analyst put it this way:

[O]ne might conclude that the post-9/11 hiring surge at the CIA may have ultimately been counterproductive in terms of openness and collaboration, particularly with other agencies, since a bigger organization means a more secretive one.

An analyst Nolan identifies as ‘Jack’ said, "I think if it were to continue existing, [NCTC] should be about one-tenth its current size."

When faced with the prospect of harmful and self-perpetuating ‘industrial complexes’ -- whether it’s the prison complex, the military complex, or its younger sibling the surveillance and intelligence complex -- we outsiders often lament the fact that we are up against lots of public sector employees who will fight tooth and nail to keep their paychecks coming. When millions of people are paid to do a job, they are unlikely to appreciate outsiders calling for drastic cuts to the budgets that provide for their employment. Indeed, they are likely to organize and lobby to keep their jobs, thereby perpetuating the complex.

But incredibly, Nolan cites numerous people who might lose their jobs as a result of cuts to intelligence budgets themselves calling for cuts. That is, even the people who would directly suffer as a result of cuts to the intelligence budgets believe that cutting those budgets would produce better public safety outcomes for our society.

One analyst told Nolan:

[S]omething that’s worth considering is completely counterintuitive, which is to make the [counterterrorism] community smaller, not larger. I think there are far more people at CIA HQ now than when we defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. What the hell?

How likely is it that the government will actually shrink the intelligence budget, and fire some of these analysts who -- according to Nolan’s thesis -- don’t really know what they are doing and are doing a poor job doing it? It is not very likely, absent a major fight. The reason, as analyst ‘Judy’ observes, has more to do with the nature of bureaucracy than it does with anything particular to the counterterrorism or ‘intelligence’ worlds.

Judy: [A]ny bureaucracy has a tendency to act in its own best interests and not necessarily those of the mission for which it was originally formed. The larger the org, the greater the bureaucracy. 

Bridget: What do you think are NCTC’s self-interests? 

Judy: Self-preservation is the first and foremost interest. 

When self-preservation is paramount, you end up with agencies like DHS that are “doing random stuff” and that don’t appear to have a good reason to exist. Said another analyst:

There’s also a lack of coordinated effort among the core agencies that cover all aspects of CT. DHS is off doing random stuff—half of us don’t even know why they exist or what they do, yet we have counterparts that we’re supposed to work with. There is a lot of duplication, and I actually fear that the IC is too big. It’s crossed the point where it’s healthy competitive analysts. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re in each other’s way. We’re hindering the mission. 

On the National Counterterrorism Center, one analyst said:

[I]t doesn’t really have a function or it doesn’t improve anything enough to justify its existence. That’s so terrible because I work there! I think that a lot of the information and production that comes out of NCTC can be done or is done better by CIA and FBI and possibly other government agencies. … I think that NCTC’s mission is not important enough to sustain the agency.

Many of the analysts Nolan interviewed echoed these comments. If even the people inside the institution doubt its utility -- and in fact think that its existence hinders the mission instead of advancing it -- why does the NCTC exist? The analyst above mentioned self-preservation as a bureaucratic impulse; that probably contributes. But other analysts described a more sinister raison d'être: to provide political cover for top officials in case there is another terrorist attack. Said one:

It was a reaction to 9/11, something that was horrible, and I think it was a way to make people feel like we took action.

Said another: 

I think that in the course of your investigation, you may want to put in the back of your mind as a possibility the cynical point of view that NCTC was never intended to be real. That all along, it’s just been a CYA [“cover your ass”] political maneuver. In the sense of being a fall guy, for when the next terrorist attack occurs. When it’s everybody’s fault it’s nobody’s fault. 

So there you have it. Many of the people who work at the CIA’s "domestic arm" for investigations think that the NCTC does more harm than good; compiles and shares too much information; and exists primarily because of bureaucratic self-interest and as a means to provide political cover for politicians. As a result, many of its own employees believe that the ‘intelligence community’ should be downsized.

Someone should tell James Clapper.

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