The Secret Colossus

“The intelligence world,’ says claim the authors of a CIA document on collection and analysis of intelligence  on Iraq, ‘is one of ambiguity, nuance and complexity’ (Jul 15, 2007).  All the more dire then, that the US intelligence effort since the attacks of September 2001 continues to be rather less nuanced, and overly complicated.  A sprawling, clumsy being is the verdict on the state of US intelligence by the Washington Post, which has released its results of a two-year investigation.  More will follow later this week.  But surely there is nothing to surprise the student of US intelligence, which is so mired in duplication, inaccuracy and systemic failings.

Big is not beautiful in the intelligence business, but the impulse towards replicating a colossus is exactly what the minions in Washington have been doing since September 11. The Post scoured a record of obesity in bureaucracy: government documents, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records and conducted hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials (Washington Post, Jul 20).

Too many cooks have been assigned to this meal, and in their collective effort have made one awful mess.  The senior opposition Republican on the House of Representatives intelligence committee Pete Hoekstra was convinced that ‘the national security bureaucracy is large, redundant and lacks the nimbleness to respond to threats posed to our nation.’

For sometime US security, like so much in the US, has been treated as a matter as much for the private sector as the public.  If Americans fear that health might become so centralised as to render their country a victim of overly keen socialists, they have little fear about privatising their security.  Some 1,931 companies are involved in counter-terrorism related programmes.  Security is, as it has been for some time now, big business for a nation that does big business.  But in the private sense, as governments have found out, it has proven more costlier than effective to implement.  The Bush administration nibbled the root of unreason and proceeded to hire more contractors than civil servants.  Expenses, instead of going down, went up.

Indeed, as the Washington Post pointed out, eight of the 22 slain agency workers honoured by the stone carver from Manassa who chiselled a commemorative star were in fact private contractors.  The Obama administration has certainly heeded the overwhelming presence of private contractors in the security business and attempted to reduce their presence, but the current numbers come close to 30 percent of the intelligence workforce.

Many have not appreciated the endeavours of the Post, seeing it as an attack on Fortress America.  There is a fear that the positions of employees might be compromised by the report.  Nor do all agree that the intelligence establishment has become virtually ungovernable.  Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R Clapper Jr. told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that the intelligence community was, in fact, ‘under control’, with its employees clearly discernable.  The cardinal issue here was the money being appropriated for the venture.  ‘The intelligence community can do many things, but printing more money is not one of the things we can do.’  What a relief to realise that these minions are, indeed, controllable.  Clapper did, however, budge on the issue of contractors, calling the task of counting and identifying them somewhat more ‘difficult’ than with government employees.

At stages, Clapper, who has been nominated to become the next director of intelligence, sounded like a disciple of that masterly satire on the public service by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister.  ‘One man’s duplication is another man’s competitive analysis.’  And so, the spirit of the obfuscating Sir Humphrey Appleby and the entangled civil service lives on.  Those in the US intelligence service will be happy that such individuals as Clapper are on the periphery waiting to take over.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: