The U.S. government's intelligence agencies are out of control again.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence spending has more than doubled. The country's 16 major intelligence agencies are poorly coordinated and often duplicate one another's work. And the White House and Congress have failed to exercise firm control over the proliferation of intelligence-gathering efforts.
The Washington Post cataloged the problem in a comprehensive series of articles. Reporter Dana Priest and data squirrel William M. Arkin reported that more than 1,200 government agencies or offices and almost 2,000 outside contractors are involved in counterterrorism activities, spending almost $75 billion producing about 50,000 intelligence reports each year — far more than the government can effectively digest.
The government disputes some of those figures, but not the existence of the problem.
The United States is running so many secret programs, James R. Clapper Jr. told the newspaper, that "only one entity in the entire universe" knows what they're all doing, and "that's God." Clapper, in case you don't recognize the name, is not some disgruntled midlevel bureaucrat: He's President Obama's nominee to be director of national intelligence, the man who's now supposed to bring the intelligence leviathan under control.
None of this should come as a surprise. After the Sept. 11 attacks, which were possible partly because of intelligence failures, Congress and the Bush administration threw money at almost anything that might prevent a recurrence. That was understandable.
But as a result, government agencies ballooned, entrepreneurial contractors found ways to make money, and waste and inefficiency bloomed like algae. That was predictable.
Now, almost a decade later, the Obama administration has inherited a bloated intelligence apparatus that wastes money and, more important, hasn't fixed all the weaknesses that made Sept. 11 possible.
One reason the Christmas bomber almost succeeded was that intelligence agencies still aren't sharing information seamlessly. "It continues to be a problem," Clapper recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It's better than it was before 9/11, but it needs improvement."
What can be done to fix these problems?
There's a rough bipartisan consensus on at least one solution: Give Clapper, if confirmed as director of national intelligence, more authority.
His job, known in Washington, D.C., as "DNI," was invented after Sept. 11 to oversee and coordinate the 16 major intelligence agencies, which include the Defense Department, the CIA and the FBI, as well as more obscure outfits such as the Energy Department's intelligence office (which guards nuclear weapons secrets). But the agencies under the umbrella have jealously guarded their own powers, especially on budget and personnel.
More authority for the DNI is only half the solution. The other half, which may seem counterintuitive during wartime, is to cut the intelligence budget.
When money is virtually unlimited, there's no real reward for finding efficiencies and no real incentive for agencies to coordinate their efforts.
Money spent on duplicative and ineffective programs doesn't help protect us against terrorists; quite the contrary. At some point, even a nation threatened by al-Qaida has to live within its means.