Time to Tame Washington's Intelligence Beast

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I asked a former colleague who retired from the CIA not long ago what he thought about the Washington Post article Monday, July 19, on the explosion of contractors in the intelligence community. "It's a horror," he said, "my tax money blowing around Washington like confetti." But he reserved his angriest comments for the contractor-driven bureaucracy that allowed a Nigerian would-be suicide bomber — as alleged by a resulting federal indictment — to board a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in December. In spite of the billions and billions of dollars we've showered on contractors, consultants and corporate contracts since 9/11, no one managed to disseminate a warning from the Nigerian's father that his son had reportedly become a terrorist.

The raw numbers in the Post tell the story. Since 9/11, America's intelligence budget has more than doubled, to $75 billion. The number of people working at the Defense Intelligence Agency has gone from 7,500 to 16,500. The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces have trebled in number, rising from 35 to 106. Personnel at the National Security Agency has doubled. There are 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, including contractors — almost 1½ times the population of Washington. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the Nigerian slipped through the cracks: there are so many more cracks now.

But we shouldn't reduce the problem to our having become a country saddled with a bureaucratic Frankenstein of timeservers and people cashing in on 9/11. Recently I've been giving talks at government agencies working on counterterrorism. With almost no exceptions, I've found my audiences, including contractors, better informed, more dedicated and better educated than the generation I served with in the CIA. (As I've said elsewhere, if I were applying to the CIA today, I wonder whether I'd make it in.) The problem is that I came away from these talks with the impression that the post-9/11 workforce is bored and even adrift — at least in the sense that there are too many people chasing too little hard intelligence.

It's a tooth-to-tail problem. CIA Director Leon Panetta has gone on the record as saying there are only a couple hundred al-Qaeda dead-enders in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of whom are dormant, hiding in caves. With a prey so small and elusive and a bureaucracy so Washington-bound, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're tripping over ourselves. Nor should it come as a surprise that more money and more contractors aren't a problem of diminishing returns but rather one of adding to the risk.

It would be considerably different if we could put this new workforce in the field — for instance, in Afghanistan, a country that demands years and years of on-the-ground experience for a young American intelligence officer to understand it. But our bases there are already overflowing with combat forces, and anyhow, it's too dangerous for Americans to get outside the wire to meet Afghans. Not unlike in Washington, they're stuck behind desks and forced to look at the country from a distance.

No one intended to create a monster bureaucracy after 9/11 — Washington has always thrown money and people at a problem rather than good ideas. But now someone has to seriously calculate the damage the outsourcing of intelligence is causing. The story I keep hearing over and over is that the bright young people who came to Washington to fight terrorism — civil servants and contractors alike — have become disillusioned, and they will soon turn away from idealism and begin to transform their jobs into comfortable careers. In the case of the contractors, it means more contracts and more contractors. It's all the worse because there are now contractors writing their own contracts.

For Washington to retake control of intelligence, it needs to remember that intelligence is inherently a governmental function, no different from the courts, the police or legislation. I wish Washington good luck in taking back ground from the contractors, and I hope it can move faster than the next would-be suicide bomber.

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.