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The mess in the US intelligence community

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In the wake of controversy over the deaths of four U.S. Army Special Forces operators in the African country of Niger, it’s become evident that these men were ambushed because of a failure of our intelligence assets to identify the presence of dozens of Islamic State or al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and sympathizers in the area. This is not the first, nor will it be the last such debacle, resulting in part from the fractionated American intelligence community, which is split among 16 agencies, all answering — in theory — to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), an independent bureau with cabinet-level status. 

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), our primary foreign intelligence service, is independent of the Cabinet, while most other intelligence agencies belong to the Defense Department. Additionally the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates an Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the Department of Justice (DOJ) contains the semi-autonomous Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), our primary domestic intelligence agency, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), while the Departments of Energy, State, and Treasury run their own intelligence offices. And other federal agencies also maintain independent intelligence units such as Coast Guard Intelligence, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Secret Service, all of which are within the DHS.

{mosads}Although our system thoroughly covers all aspects of intelligence collection and analysis, it is by a pantheon of oft-competing entities, each trying to show their independent relevance. A counterproductive system that’s wasteful of public funds and rife with inter-agency turf wars. Among the major world powers, we are unique in devoting so many separate entities to intelligence work. The British have 4 major intelligence agencies, one for external operations, MI-6 — the Secret Intelligence Service of James Bond fame, MI-5, for domestic counter-intelligence, Defence Intelligence for the military and GCHQ, the U.K. equivalent of our National Security Agency (NSA).


Opposing the Western services, Russia has three intelligence agencies. The SVR, a rough equivalent of our CIA, the FSB, successor to the KGB, and the military’s GRU, their largest external intelligence service. The Chinese have two; the Ministry of State Security which handles both domestic and foreign intelligence matters and the Joint Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, a military intel agency with departments that perform functions equivalent to our CIA, NSA, and runs their spy satellites.

America’s intelligence hodge-podge clamors for simplification. Here’s how: The ODNI, created after the attacks of September 11th to coordinate our intelligence operations, doesn’t. It often disputes the conclusions of its subordinate agencies, and is regarded within the intelligence community as a superfluous trinket of bureaucracy. Eliminate it and place management of all intelligence in the hands of the National Security Advisor who has a Council to advise him and who answers directly to the president.

Designate the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as the sole U.S. military intelligence service, subsuming the functions of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine intelligence components. The current military setup is a large waste of resources that sometimes leads to conflicting results. The DIA can maintain different offices for each of the military services, while maintaining operational control for coordinated results. 

Three more intelligence components of the DOD are the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which operates our spy satellites, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA) which interprets overhead (satellite and aerial) imagery and performs services such as mapping for the armed services, and the NSA, responsible for electronic intelligence collection, cyber operations and cryptography. The work of these agencies is too often overlapping. Let the NSA, our largest intelligence service, superintend the operation and dissemination of intel we gather these ways, by moving the NRO and the NGIA into their fold.

Although the CIA has resources and operations stretching around the world, the Departments of State, Treasury and Energy still run separate intelligence bureaus. Eliminate this duplication and let the FBI and CIA provide them with the information they need. Coordinated intelligence saves time, money and increases efficiency by eliminating infighting bureaucracies.

And while its prestigious for the DEA to have its own intelligence unit, it’s a waste of resources. The DEA can get what it needs to combat drug trafficking from the vast intelligence operations run by the FBI and the CIA. The same can be said of the DHS. Save for the Protective Intelligence Division of the Secret Service, which is essential to that agency’s dignitary protection duties, the rest of the DHS should be getting its intelligence product directly from the FBI, CIA and, where needed, the DIA.

Government bureaucracies have a knack for growth at any cost. The bigger an agency is, the more money it can get from Congress and the more people it can hire. Suffer the poor taxpayers. The proliferation of intelligence agencies is a hydra, employing too many people, wasting billions of dollars and as history has shown, too often crafts an inaccurate product. As Albert Einstein famously said, make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. If our major allies and adversaries can gather intelligence with less complex apparatus, why can’t the United States?

America needs but four agencies, the CIA, FBI, NSA and DIA, to best carry out its intelligence activities. A reorganization along this path allows more structured intelligence to be distributed to all federal agencies based on their particular needs. But most importantly, it would give the president a better, more concise intelligence product, vetted through his national security advisor and council, and where needed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so he can make the best possible decisions as commander in chief.

Martin W. Schwartz is an attorney based in New York. He worked previously as an assistant district attorney in Bronx County, a special counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice-FBI, and for more than a decade as a special agent for the U.S. Customs Service, retiring as a security and intelligence officer.

Tags Central Intelligence Agency Defense Intelligence Agency Director of National Intelligence Martin Schwartz National Security Agency United States intelligence agencies United States Intelligence Community

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