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OPINION: Risky Business

Threats To The U.S. Won't Go Away, Even If Funding Does

The U.S. intelligence community is not sufficiently funded to perform its mission, and now the community is staring at a 10 percent gouging in January, because Congress and the administration did not agree on a plan to reduce the debt. Ironically, the original intent of the sequester was not for it to happen. It was supposed to force members of Congress to work together to resolve the long term debt problem. The approach failed. Members of Congress remain unwilling to work together, and although members in both parties hope to avoid the budgetary reductions, no one is taking action to avoid them.

With this kind of leadership, we should all hope for change.

Setting aside the sequestration threat, there are many people who have accepted as a fait accompli, that the years of increasing intelligence budgets are over and that reductions are appropriate. I wonder if our adversaries will get the memo and kindly accommodate our financial plight by standing down their activities for a while. I wonder if our own leadership will recognize that the intelligence capabilities that we need are driven by the threats and the need to be able to provide our leadership ample warning and insight, so that they may be managed.

In the months after 9/11, the country witnessed true leadership. The political parties were united and Congress worked with the administration to ensure the nation rose to meet the challenges of a very uncertain time. Funding for a wide range of activities was increased to rebuild capabilities that had atrophied. Congress established bipartisan commissions – the House-Senate joint inquiry and the external 9/11 Commission – to ensure that we understood what happened and to make every effort to ensure that it never happens again. These examples of leadership gave the nation assurance and confidence.

During the years preceding 9/11, many people accepted the notion that the Cold War was over and that the need for intelligence was therefore greatly diminished. Talk of a Peace Dividend was common. Today’s corollary is a Debt Dividend: Agreeing to the notion that the nation should reduce intelligence funding in the name of contributing to debt reduction, without a fulsome discussion on the risks.

If we were to look at the threats today and what we expect our intelligence community to do about them, we would increase the funding levels despite the national priorities on the debt.

Part of the problem is that garnering political support for intelligence activities is inherently handicapped compared with other national priorities. The merits, costs and benefits of Medicare, Medicaid, social security, and federal spending on education can be quantified and discussed publicly in detail. We cannot have a public debate on intelligence activities because discussing the merits of any particular program would assist our adversaries in understanding our capabilities and then countering them. Furthermore, it's impossible to quantify the consequences of reducing our intelligence expenditures because we can't be sure what will or won't happen. So we place our trust in elected leaders to ensure that the rest of government has the resources and wherewithal to perform the missions that we expect. When it comes to preventing future acts of terrorism, we should not be so comfortable as to think reducing intelligence resources is a good idea.

A strong case can be made that the threats are continuing to grow and diversify and we are not prepared for the types of threats, the number and diversity of their origins, the increasing significance of consequences, and the difficulty in developing adequate intelligence on them.

In the good old days, all we had to worry about were invading armies and nuclear annihilation. Today, adversaries are content to affect our foreign policies. They try to do so by killing Americans (suicide bombers, IEDs, or kidnapping) or by targeting global trade or our economy in hopes of diminishing our quality of lives. These vulnerabilities can be exploited in so many ways that the challenge for the intelligence community is vastly more complex than in those old days.

• Consider the Internet. It provides access to very sensitive government, corporate, and personal information. It also connects our banking and communications infrastructure with everyday activities like buying food and gas. Our dependency on it and the vulnerabilities to it are both enormous. In the physical realm, consider how our shipping and transportation networks fuel our economy by supplying our industries with materials. This relatively efficient shipping throughput would be crippled if we tried to implement the functional equivalent of airport security screening procedures. An adversary who even bluffed about sneaking a small radioactive device into a U.S. port could produce a tremendous psychological and logistical impact across the country. In short, there are unlimited possibilities that could be exploited, and we expect our intelligence community (coupled with appropriate policy responses) to prevent all of them.

• The list of organizations that we have to be concerned with is increasing. Traditional near-peers, such as China, remain but we are adding many new entities such as non-state based religious extremists. Osama bin Laden demonstrated the consequences of ignoring those new threats. The intelligence community knew bin Laden was a threat. Bin Laden himself regularly and publicly pronounced that he was at war with the U.S. But knowledge of the threat was not enough to prevent the widespread perception that the intelligence community failed in its duties by not preventing 9/11. The commissions and pundits helped to establish a new standard for the intelligence community: have perfect clarity into the plans and intentions of any individual. If this is the standard, and I don’t know of anyone who would argue it is not, then our intelligence resources should not be reduced.

• The tools of destruction and disruption are increasingly available to adversaries. This can mean weapons of mass destruction or technologies for exploiting the vulnerabilities of the Internet. The threats are smaller and more difficult to monitor and detect, and in the case of the Internet, can be launched from anywhere in the world. Moreover, the consequences of the threats can be much greater. In the case of weapons today, the effect can be delivered in much smaller packages whether it is nuclear or biological and in the case of a cyber-attack, our way of living is so interdependent and integrated that the effects would be compounded.

• Potential adversaries are improving their understanding of our intelligence methods and devising countermeasures and techniques for deception. Advances in technology aid our adversaries more than us because those advances complicate our intelligence collection. Consider NSA’s mission of intercepting communications. Adversaries can now communicate in a host of ways, including emails, phone calls, faxes, and videos. The volume of global communications has become absolutely enormous and simply cannot be monitored for each possible threat.

If all indicators point to a need for continuing strong investments in our intelligence capabilities, why would we decrease the funding now? The administration, with calls from both parties to reduce spending, already tightened the intelligence community’s planned level of spending. But worse than that, the Budget Control Act of 2011 has the intelligence community on a path to take an enormous bite out of the currently planned activities through sequestration.

Faced with the facts, our leaders should stand firmly to ensure that the investments in our intelligence community are aligned to the threats and will meet the expectation of our citizens. If leaders are willing to reduce the investments, they should do so by making the case publicly that we as a nation are accepting the risks of diminishing our capabilities in the face of growing threats. Ten years ago, Congress took its turn holding the intelligence community accountable for failing to prevent the attacks of 9/11. Do lawmakers feel the responsibility to work together to avoid sequestration and ensure that our intelligence community is properly funded? If and when the time comes, will they hold themselves accountable for the consequences of their actions?

Would be nice to see them take a page from history during the months following 9/11, and come together to support the needs of our nation. The administration and Congress should work together to scrap the failed efforts that are leading to sequestration – now. Then, they should work together to ensure that our intelligence community has the resources to meet its mission and the growing threats.

    • Authorimage: John StopherJohn StopherJohn Stopher is a former staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is founder and president of the 377 Omega consulting company.

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