Our Secret American Security State

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Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama studying a document held by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during the presidential daily briefing in the Oval Office, February 3, 2011

What is the American intelligence bureaucracy good for? The question is difficult to ask in a serious way in Washington because it risks raising the hackles of career intelligence professionals and their political sponsors at a time when spy agencies remain under pressure to combat resilient if diminished international terrorist groups and to monitor and check Iran’s nuclear program, among other challenges. Yet a serious, transparent review of the intelligence system’s strengths and limitations is overdue.

The past decade has witnessed one of the most egregious misuses of intelligence in American history—the Bush administration’s distortion of information about Saddam Hussein’s terrorist ties and unconventional weapons, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. It has also seen a surge of paramilitary activity and covert action that has included the operation of secret prisons, the use of torture, and targeted killing. The Obama administration ended officially sanctioned torture, but it has refused to allow official inquiries into how it occurred, and the administration has increased the number of covert, unacknowledged targeted killings through the use of armed, unmanned aerial drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

In all, a president who might have challenged the American intelligence bureaucracy and given it a new direction has instead maintained and even expanded what he inherited. Nor has Congress reviewed the hasty organizational reforms it enacted after September 11 or reckoned in depth with the problems exposed by the Iraq disaster. The vital questions that seemed to be begged after the Bush era—about the intelligence system’s scope, effectiveness, costs, outsourcing, legal justifications, and vulnerability to politicization—have remained largely unaddressed.

Intelligence collection is an aspect of self-defense. Some of the work can be distasteful, but there is hardly a kingdom, empire, or democracy in history that has not engaged spies to provide warning about potential surprise attacks, assess the intentions of hostile governments, and ferret out the espionage of other powers. The United States did so in a modest way during the first century and a half of its existence. In an age of slow-moving ships, two oceans rendered strategic surprise unlikely. Pearl Harbor ended that era. By the early 1950s the American intelligence system was swelling into a labyrinth whose size would become much greater than anything imagined by the authors of the Constitution—intelligence became a sprawling, largely self-managing arm of cold war strategies and Pax Americana. The shape of the present intelligence bureaucracy—and the recurring doubts about its accountability to Congress and the public—are traceable to this postwar period.

The mission of cold war spies was to give warning about—and to help prevent—a Soviet nuclear strike on the United States or a conventional invasion of Western Europe, which might escalate into Armageddon. Technology emerged as a relative strength of American …

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