Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 28, 2010

Competitive Analysis, Comparative Advantage

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Organizational Issues — by Mark Chubb on July 28, 2010


People in the intelligence community deal in some of the most sensitive and cynical information about our government and its operations against our adversaries. It’s no wonder spies are not generally known for their senses of humor. That said, it’s a quality that really ought to be more highly prized. If the recent remarks of James Clapper, President Obama’s nominee to become the fourth director of national intelligence, are any indication, we might have a winner.

In last week’s Washington Post series on burgeoning intelligence community contracting, Clapper was quoted as having said to a reporter that the only entity in the universe with visibility into all special access programs is God. During his confirmation hearing, he was quoted as having observed in response to a question about the series, “One man’s duplication is another man’s competitive analysis.” Funny stuff, really. At least as far as I am concerned.

Characterizing the proliferation of overlapping jurisdictions and the growth in outsourcing of analysis and technical capabilities as competitive analysis is either euphemistic or optimistic. Either way its worth asking how we would know what this incredible investment of national wealth and talent is worth to our national security.

On one hand, we are regularly reassured that al Qa’ida and its affiliates have failed to launch a successful attack against the United States homeland since the 9/11 attacks. This argument asks us to accept facts not in evidence (at least publicly), as it depends on the presumption that our intelligence community operatives are routinely interdicting our adversaries before they can cause us harm.

Over the past two years, however, a new threat has emerged in the form of homegrown, lone wolf Muslim radicals. In each of the last three attacks — Ft. Hood, the Christmas Day underwear bomber, and the amateurish Times Square vehicle-borne improvised explosive device — the perpetrators gained training or encouragement from overseas operatives. That none of them succeeded on a scale comparable to previous attacks is not for lack of trying.

If we were to judge solely by the President’s reactions to these attacks, we should wonder what if anything we are getting for our increased investments in the intelligence community. The President himself has characterized these attacks as evidence of failure.

I understand the media interest in the intelligence community, but what really impresses me is how our fellow countrymen are responding since 9/11. People are far more aware of threats to our security and seem far more willing to become involved when they see something’s not right. In the absence of specific, direct investments in building the capacity of citizens to contribute to homeland defense and security and actively enlisting them in efforts to identify and assess threats, it seems safe to say that these actions on the part of the public have occurred in spite of, not because of, all the money we spent expanding intelligence community capabilities.

If we were to judge by results alone, the better investment is clearly an informed and engaged public. But that’s not currently on the table and no one is offering it despite evidence that the Washington Post series’ gravest potential impact is the further erosion of public trust and confidence in government administration and oversight of covert intelligence spending.

If General Clapper becomes the next director of national intelligence, which seems pretty certain at this point, we have little reason to believe that anything significant will change in our intelligence posture. This strikes me as a lost opportunity. The comparative advantages of engaging the public in the homeland security mission are much clearer than those associated with the competitive analysis of intelligence.

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 28, 2010 @ 5:12 am

The line between engagement of the public and line drawing with civil liberties and privacy is a very very tough thing to do. From the WWI era Palmer Raids (Palmer was AG and investigations into anarchists and communists-and there were both–were led by J. Edgar Hoover) destroyed the lives of many innocents. Also Senators McCarran of Nevada and McCarthy of Wisconsin also deeply scarred American life in many ways. Then of course CounterIntelPro and other domestic spying activities. It is a large country and many diverse beliefs and there will always be some who are outside the legitimate bounds of anti-government sentiment and willing to destroy innocents to fulfull their vision. Just starting to read “Driven To Death” by Ariel Merari, 2010, analyzing psychological and social aspects of suicide terrorism. My question is what evidence do we have to give the interested public as to how are political leadership wants this line-drawing to be conducted and by who? Not much at this point but still not yet acrossed the 9 year mark since 9/11-01! What seems to be the case is that so far the evidence that bureacratic rivalry, politics, contractor greed has dominated homeland security and homeland defense but certainly willing to have the opposite view documented. The problem of course is that democratic society can be swayed so that the majorities can temporarily go off course. So maybe time will tell US the answers. Still as the oldest and richest democracy (Republic)ever on the face of the earth the journey is as important as the destination.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 2, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

I agree with your premise, but feel that it is not lack of investment but the nature of secrecy itself that is preventing robust public engagement.

Citizen preparedness blogger John Solomon has accurately pointed out that the “public is too often infantilized when it comes to information on serious terrorist threats, including weapons of mass destruction.”

I think this because of the overuse of secrecy–from labeling things Secret down to the ubiquitous “FOUO” stamp on all homeland security documents. There is a mixture of reasons why this exists:

1. A person in a position of power decides some bit of information is sensitive because it could reveal dangerous facts (e.g. nuclear weapon design) or by not widely disseminating the information it could provide that person with some level of extra influence through possession of “restricted” knowledge.

2. Because that sort of information has always been designated secret, sensitive, FOUO, etc.–standard operating procedure.

3. If it is considered sensitive knowledge, then perhaps we don’t have to share it with our institutional rivals and thus gain some budgetary or other advantage in internal governmental processes.

A bit crude Model I, II, III analysis, but I think it holds true. When the overall dynamic of secrecy changes in our national and homeland security institutions, then you may see vastly improved public involvement in these issues.

For further reading:
–”In case of emergency, read blog:” http://incaseofemergencyblog.com/2010/08/02/when-u-s-officials-warn-public-about-new-terror-threats-to-nation-why-do-they-have-to-do-it-anonymously/

–Allison, Graham T., “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Comment by 66

August 5, 2010 @ 11:00 am

“Because there are a finite number of places where intelligence funds may be hidden in the federal budget, a skilled budget analyst could construct a hypothetical intelligence budget by aggregating suspected intelligence line items from the publicly disclosed appropriations. Release of the aggregate intelligence budget would provide a mathematic benchmark to test and refine such a hypothesis. Repeated disclosures of the total appropriation could provide more data with which to test and refine the hypothesis. Confirmation of the hypothetical budget could disclose the actual locations in the appropriations acts where intelligence funds are hidden.” http://www.fas.org/sgp/foia/2002/tenet.html

God only knows how much is spent and where it’s being spent. The bankers crashed their banks and ended up with more power. Investing in failed banks is a bigger security risk than funding intelligence activities. Maybe the Washington Post can track the bailout funds. Chances are the bankers are hiding funds. The insurance companies are withholding policy payments and paying bonuses. The cost of war. Insure your funds. Intelligence is insurance.

It’s all tarps and no funds here. The roof is leaking and the foundation is leaking. I’m working on it. It’s costing me a fortune. I just try to forget about the costs and stop the leaks.

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