The Agenda

On Top Secret America

Peter Feaver isn’t impressed with the Washington Post’s new Top Secret America series:

The series has just begun and perhaps future installments will offer more bombshell revelations, but the first installment leaves me wondering what the fuss was about. The major claim that the complexity of the intelligence community has made it hard to manage in a centralized fashion is neither new nor proven in a novel way. I am sympathetic to the charge — anyone who has worked in government understands how complex the national security establishment is and can probably name a publication or an organization that, in one person’s humble opinion, could be dropped without fatally wounding national security. The difficulty is that when you aggregate across a variety of experienced perspectives, you do not come up with a common list of things to axe. One man’s meat is another man’s fluff, and vice-versa. You need look no further than this very series to establish this fact. The Washington Post team have spent two years talking with scores of people and compile all of the complaints without producing (yet, yet … perhaps the best is yet to come) any coherent and viable set of reforms.  

Spencer Ackerman suggests that the intelligence community adhere to the KISS principle:

Analysts and policymakers have long complained that the intelligence community hoovers up so much data that it’s tough to sort important material from the mounds of useless ephemera. As we saw with the case of would-be underwear bomber, it’s hard for counterterrorists to properly synthesize data when they’re asked to drink from a firehose of information. There’s a policy solution for this: raise the standards of specificity about extremist groups or activities or weapons or tactics that the intelligence community gathers.

My view is straightforward: when the intelligence agencies “succeed,” they demand more resources. When the intelligence agencies “fail,” they demand more resources. The parallels to public schools are striking, yet we at least have some crude sense of how we can impose greater accountability on school districts. Lines of accountability are by necessity far blurrier in the intelligence space, and that’s a difficult, if not impossible, problem to solve.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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