I read the three-part Washington Post report of Dana Priest and William M. Arkin following a two-year investigation of waste in top-secret government contracting. Greater cost-effectiveness unquestionably needs to be a priority with an intelligence budget of $75 billion. And the investigative reporting offered far more detail about entities, funding, projects and staffing than I had before. But I do not expect that I will ever know from personal knowledge if the money devoted to keeping America safe was well spent.

            Obviously, a major obstacle for this area of inquiry is the fact that intelligence programs have to be concealed; they are compromised by disclosure. The public must trust elected officials to evaluate top-secret operations; and to a large we rely on legislators to properly balance defense and national security costs against the rest of the federal budget.  Members of the Select Committees on Intelligence are supposed to monitor our success in the war against terror and appropriate funds accordingly.

            National defense from my perspective is a multitude of delicate balances, some of which appear in the chart below. The location of an equilibrium position on an issue depends upon the individual decision-maker’s political persuasion, employer, and their ability to persuade others; as well as the threat assessment, measurable results, and available money.

 

Competing Factors in Issues of National Security

 

Data sharing.

Protecting your budget and political turf. Example: Special Access Programs (“SAPs”).

Profit motive.

The larger public interest.

Performance metrics.

Saving one American life.

Trimming $___ million dollars from the budget.

Bigger government.

More private contractors.

Strategic initiatives.

Tactical advantages. Example: Rendering armored personnel carriers impervious to Improvised Electronic Devices (“IEDs”).

White-listing areas or people to free up resources. Example: Relaxing security inside a military base.

 Investing in more hardware, software, personnel, overlapping security and coordination – at a higher cost.

Redundancy

The “soccer ball” syndrome in which everyone runs to the ball.

Members of Congress voting for Department of Defense (“DOD”) and national security budgets.

Getting voted out of office for being “weak” on defense.

 

           Clearly, command, control and productivity should be the exclusive responsibility of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (“ODNI”). If, as the journalists claim, the “colossus” is unmanageable due to “Washington ways,” then the ways need to change: We need to confer the requisite power through legislation or executive order. ODNI has to be able to exercise budgetary oversight. Meaningful oversight requires unfettered access to contracts, data, reports and position descriptions – all in the context of enforcing an accountability workflow.
               Our national security industry is not necessarily too big or too complex if it is appropriately scaled, focused and monitored to accomplish its purpose.             
            Instead of stressing about part of the national budget that will always be esoteric by definition, I believe Americans should take a step back from the details and consider some larger issues: Is the war in Afghanistan winnable? Does killing insurgents with drones make us safer? Why do we have so many more prisoners and private firearms than other advanced Western countries?  Did we over-react to 911 by invading Iraq in a
Korematsu-style collective paranoia?

            I don’t know. But when we debate our nation’s top-secret budget, these other questions should also be asked.