Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Tomgram: Proliferation Wars in the Intelligence Community

Thirty Flew into the Cuckoo's Nest

The Tangled Web of American "Intelligence"
By Tom Engelhardt

In recent months, among other uproars and scandals, Americans learned that the Defense Department has been collecting intelligence on and tracking domestic antiwar activists; that, since 2001, the National Security Agency (NSA) has had a presidentially authorized, law-breaking, warrantless surveillance program to listen in on the international phone calls of possibly tens of thousands of U.S. citizens; that, with the help of three of the four major telephone companies, it also has had a data-mining operation -- "the largest database ever assembled in the world" -- linked, at least one case, directly into a major telecommunication carrier's network core ("where all its data are stored"), giving it access to almost all telephone calls made in this country; that, as Director of the CIA, Porter Goss, a Bush-appointed, Cheney-backed, ex-congressman, had whipped out his lie detector and conducted an internal war and purge of an agency viewed by the administration as little better than the Axis of Evil, tearing its upper ranks apart via numerous resignations and retirements; that, meanwhile, Goss's third-in-command, a fellow with the evocative name of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo (think: fog o' intelligence), was being investigated for possibly granting illegal Agency sweetheart contracts to a pal already involved in another major Washington corruption scandal (and don't even get me started on those poker games and prostitutes); that Goss, in turn, was pushed out of the CIA by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Negroponte, head of a new uber-intelligence "office" (ODNI) meant to coordinate the whole sprawling "intelligence community," and his second in command, Air Force General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA (who oversaw those surveillance and data-mining operations for the administration); that the President then nominated the active-duty general to take Goss's place as the head of the country's major civilian spy agency -- in his Senate hearings, he would offer the following comment on Goss's tenure: "You get a lot more authority when the work force doesn't think it's amateur hour on the top floor"; that Republican and Democratic Senators, having questioned the credibility of a military man who had overseen a patently illegal surveillance program on American citizens for years and then defended it vigorously, promptly collapsed in a non-oppositional heap of praise, and rubber-stamped him director by a vote of 78-15; that in the ever-upward-rippling CIA-agent-outing case of Valerie Plame -- about which a stonewalling Goss said, while still head of the House Intelligence Committee, "Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I'll have an investigation" -- rumors of Karl Rove's indictment continued to circulate; while Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald reserved the right to call the Vice President, whose office seems ever more in his sightlines, to testify in former aide I. Lewis Libby's trial next year.

All this news involving what we call "intelligence" -- and much more -- played out on the front pages of the nation's newspapers and on TV, replete with copious leaks from within the intelligence community, threats from the White House to prosecute journalists reporting those leaks, outraged press editorials about sundry intelligence topics, and a great deal of heat and noise.

Each scandal came and went, the news spotlight flickering from one to the next; and yet, as Hayden's testimony before the Senate made clear, just about no one seemed to have the urge to ask the obvious what's-it-all-about-Alfie question. Nobody wondered what this thing called "intelligence," over which so many tens of thousands of analysts, code breakers, and agents labor with so many tens of billions of our dollars, really is; what sort of knowledge about our planet all those acronymic intelligence organizations really deliver. The value of the "intelligence community" to deliver this thing called "intelligence," whatever mistakes or missteps might be made, is simply taken for granted.

Department of Redundancy

Let's back up a moment, though, and consider what any of us out here can know about the alphabet soup of the American Intelligence Community or IC (as it likes to term itself). Start with the simplest thing: There's obviously a lot we don't know. Much of this world is, by definition, plunged into the darkness of secrecy, including untold billions of dollars hidden away in highly classified "black" budgets. Moreover, the blanket of intelligence secrecy (regularly broken by leaks to the media from so many unhappy members of that roiling "community") has grown ever more encompassing, given the Bush administration's general mania for secrecy. So whatever numbers follow have to be taken with a large grain of unverifiable salt. But we do know this: The IC is simply enormous with, seemingly, a life of its own -- imperially vast, a veritable mountain of proliferating agencies, groups, and organizations, larger by multiples than that of any other country -- and growing more enormous almost literally as you read.

Until fairly recently, newspaper articles regularly cited an iconic 15 civilian and military intelligence agencies in that all-American "community," a number now raised to 16 at the official website of the IC, and that figure doesn't even include Negroponte's new Office of the Director of National Intelligence with its near billion-dollar budget.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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