The United States Intelligence Community was in Austin last week for their second visit of 2014. In May it was primarily an NSA show. This time a combined National Intelligence/CIA show with a dash of the Pentagon – but no DIA. Led by General James Clapper, who gave the keynote speech, the all-star cast included several prominent figures from the post 9/11 era. That was appropriate since the occasion was the anniversary of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004’s passage. As a result the meeting had something of an alumni reunion flavor. There was much serious reflection about institutional issues and methods; very little about concrete security problems (IS got 47 seconds by my watch) and nothing about civil liberties issues. No critics or skeptics were among the participants. That omission added to the eerie sensation that this was a conclave of the “deep state.”
Clapper set the tone with a smug exposition of how the IC had mastered its GWOT brief. It was patronizing to absent critics – including Congress, supremely self-satisfied, and righteous. He had the air of a winner who had earned a deserved triumph. Clapper had reason to be confident. As he confided to the audience, the move to rein in the NSA’s electronic spying had run out of steam. Personally, he had escaped unscathed despite perjuring himself. That’s all true. Legislation proposed to tinker with data collection procedures, already watered down, is lost in the maze of Congressional election year maneuvering; the president is exposed as an active collaborator with his aggressive intelligence agencies – including the campaign to bury the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA mendacity and failings; and the media have shied away from any follow-up reporting. Even the documented account by James Risen of the White House orchestrated plot in the wake of 9/11to circumvent (indeed, ignore) legal restrictions on domestic wire-tapping has not crossed the threshold of public attention. (Pay Any Price 2014)
A conspiracy of pivotal leaders in the three branches of government to violate the Constitution is not “fit to print” –as its predecessor story wasn’t in 2004. The politically attuned bureaucrats who run the intelligence establishment may not be very good at providing policy-makers with valid and valuable analysis; however, they clearly are virtuosos at playing the multi-layered political game.
The one sour note was an undercurrent of whining about the straightened financial circumstances that were crimping the intelligence agencies. This was the contrapuntal theme to repeated plaintive notes that the world had gotten to be a much tougher place to understand. In “the good old days of the Cold War,” we knew the enemy, things changed only incrementally and we could count the Soviets’ missiles and tanks. Nowadays, there are multiple threats; some very strange people like Vladimir Putin and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; we have to struggle to figure out their personalities and thinking; Snowden alerted our enemies that Uncle Sam was actually after them; and events move quickly. That means the IC is expected to foresee a suddenly arriving future – and we all know how notoriously uncertain the future is. All this on a shoe string budget. Hope was in the air, though, since the past 14 years have shown that virtue brings more than its own reward.
Here is the URL access (Click: Intelligence Reform Conference) to the main segments of the program (copy attached) that include Clapper, remarks by Admiral William McRaven, former chief of the United States Special Operations Command and newly appointed Chancellor of the University of Texas system, and the luncheon talk by former National Security Adviser Steve Hadley – which is quite instructive on process in the Bush White House.
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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.