Gulliver Tied Down by Lilliputians

American Culture and American Intelligence

Jul 22, 2010

“Intelligence,” both in the national security as well as the ordinary sense of the term, is limited by the culture from whence it stems. Dana Priest’s and William Arkin’s Washington Post account of chaos in the American intelligence community, “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” has prompted a round of finger-wagging at both the Bush and Obama administrations. But the glaring problems in America’s intelligence services stem from an underlying failing in American culture, exacerbated by massive over-resourcing and duplication of effort in response to 9/11.

According to Priest and Arkin, “The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don’t dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency’s analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.” They report:

Among the most important people inside the [intelligence installations] are the low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year, whose job is at the core of everything Top Secret America tries to do.

At its best, analysis melds cultural understanding with snippets of conversations, coded dialogue, anonymous tips, even scraps of trash, turning them into clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.

Their work is greatly enhanced by computers that sort through and categorize data. But in the end, analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years, said a senior ODNI official. Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters.

But where is the intelligence community likely to find personnel qualified for foreign intelligence? A rough but useful gauge is the number of university students studying the languages terrorists typically speak.

Read the rest of my article at First Things.