If you’ve heard all the drama about “17 Intelligence Agencies” recently, you might have wondered 1. who the hell all those agencies are, and, 2. why do we need so many?
Unfortunately, we can’t answer the second question. But we’ll take a shot at the first.
The current, highly dysfunctional and ineffective structure of the intelligence community was a result of a re-organization after the 9/11 Commission found that interagency rivalry and stove-piping prevented unity of command and efficiency in the IC. So they created several new agencies, including “One Ring to Rule Them All,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which duplicated the primary function of the Director of Central Intelligence. They also created the duplicative Department of Homeland Security.
So, Congress’s response to too much bureaucracy in intelligence was to create two more enormous, empire-building, and completely non-operational bureaucracies. That bid against each other, raising the prices of credentialed and cleared personnel in the National Capital Area, and have 17 independent, redundant and leaky massive overhead bureaucracies. None of the overhead — the great bulk of the personnel and costs of these agencies — does a thing to secure an adversary’s secret or protect a friendly one. Feeling safer, yet?
So, the ODNI (website here) is one of the agencies. Here’s how ODNI presents what it sees as the subordinate 16 (not all the agencies are subordinated willingly):
That’s a really illogical way to do it, and we have no idea why they listed them like that. Wait… duh. They’re in alphabetical order. OK, let’s break it down functionally and historically for you. With ODNI accounted for, we have 1 down and 16 to go.
First, we have Cabinet Departments that want to horn in on intelligence. DOE was formerly involved in nuclear intelligence, because it’s involved in nuclear everything. State contains the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which has always been an attempt to duplicate CIA capability in Foggy Bottom, and has a long history free of significant attainments. Treasury wants to play the-spy-as-auditor. And DHS has already been mentioned. Treasury and DHS do have some agencies with intelligence capabilities, mostly domestic. This accounts for 4 more of the agencies: 5 down and 11 to go.
There are the service intelligence bureaucracies, five of them (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard), plus the long-standing DIA which is mostly another duplicative analysis shop, but does run some military HUMINT and CI projects. This happens because the main HUMINT agency has dropped the ball on HUMINT and is unresponsive to military tasking. 10 down and 6 to go.
Then, we have the flatfeet. These agencies are primarily crim catchers, but DEA gets intel (mostly by liaison) about transnational drug traffic that often has other intelligence implications, and FBI has internal security and national security responsibilities — they’re supposed to be our prime spy catchers. These 2 chiefly-crimefighting crowds bring us to 12 down and 4 to go.
The four that remain are what you probably think of when you think of US intelligence. They are divided along functional lines of intelligence disciplines (the “INTs”).
- The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) runs HUMINT (as well as an organization that institutionally hates to leave the flagpole can), runs any collection it can, and runs a comprehensive all-source analysis shop. It has some paramilitary “regime change” capability, first developed early in the Cold War but now waxes and wanes because many politicians have turned against it.
- The National Security Agency (NSA) runs most electronic and technical intelligence collection and analysis, using swarms of military personnel as its foot soldiers (think Bradley Manning). Its Central Security Service branch is also responsible for securing American codes and ciphers. Like CIA, it was established by the National Security Act of 1947.
- The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), in conjunction with the Air Force Space Command and other intelligence agencies, manages intelligence collection via overhead platforms. Until the last couple of decades, its very existence and everything it did was classified.
- The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) is a textbook example of bureaucracy creep. Like the NRO, the NGA’s intelligence work is kept mostly secret for good reasons. It also has overt and public responsibilities; it used to be the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), before that it was the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA), and before that it was the very prosaic Army Map Service. Along with its secret responsibilities (many of the agency’s personnel and contractors got a well-deserved attaboy for the OBL raid), the NGA also makes our maps and charts, both paper and digital. (Having used stuff from all round the world, our digital stuff can be incredibly awesome, but the Russians make the best paper maps by far).
That brings us to 16 agencies plus ODNI. Now, frequently you will see some Beltway drone or chinless broadsheet bloviator talking about what “17 intelligence agencies” (or “16” if the berk leaves off the DNI) did or didn’t do, and that should act as a handy tag, like the ones that Tracking Point puts on a target, but a kind of photographic negative version — a marker that that guy is so stupid he’s not worth shooting and/or so dishonest that he’s not worth listening to. When you hear “17 intelligence agencies” all you need to understand is “ODNI Opinion” which generally means something coming from the top down. From the political appointees and the career officers who suck up to them.
“The last piece of the puzzle before we can execute this mission will be the ODNI analysis,” said no one operational, not in any of the “17 agencies” nor military services. We can guarantee you that. ODNI is entirely a Beltway political knob-polisher and brings nothing to the the intelligence community but more headcount (and a concomitant lowering of the entry bar and product quality). They do, however, have a lot of really flashy document formats, logos, and slide deck templates.
This may be because they have learned what leaks best to their journalism pals.
Most of actual production of useful and actionable intelligence is done by individuals and very small teams, usually working for a single agency, often taking the sort of risks that ensure that they, ultimately, won’t be promoted, and the teeming HQ credit-thieves will.
Our bloated, blind, and Beltway-bound intelligence community is mostly in the wrong place. Intelligence is, mostly, foreign information, but we insist on gathering it and analyzing it from DC desks.
- the majority of our intelligence analysts have never been to the countries or regions on which they’re supposedly experts.
- Perhaps 5 or 10% are functional in the languages of their target area. Professional fluency is vanishingly rare, and usually rests on immigrants and first-generation Americans.
- Many analysts have never been outside the First World.
- Another large percentage of them, who have been to the area, were on an escorted 7-capitals-in-11-days tour.
- You can rise to the Senior Executive Service level in any of the agencies without ever having to move from your Maryland or NoVA suburb.
And yeah, we’re worse off in intelligence than we were on 11 September, 2001, despite producing vastly more output (and leaking it, to the press and adverse intelligence agencies, but we repeat ourselves). Because we didn’t solve the bureaucracy problem, we exacerbated it. And we blew billions — and continue to blow billions — on the project.
Which is increasingly a government jobs program — the WPA for liberal arts graduates. Except, we’re still using some of the useful bridges and town halls the WPA built.
(Note: with this post, we’ve added a new category, which we seldom do. A lot of previous writing on Intelligence and Espionage has been characterized as Unconventional Warfare, but they’re not the same thing. For practical reasons, we’re probably not going to go back in five years’ of archives reassigning the new I&E label, but we’ll use it going forward. -Ed.)