Intelligence Agencies Need To Knock Off The Fearmongering

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS Parts of the U.S. Patriot Act expired on Sunday. You may not have noticed, but the terrorists did. At least that's what CIA Director John Brennan said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"I think terrorist elements have watched very carefully what has happened here in the United States," Brennan warned.

Presumably Brennan means that while some terrorists were busy beheading people in the Middle East, others were monitoring American congressional debates -- and not that the terrorist executioners are actually watching C-SPAN on their smartphones while sharpening their swords. The logical corollary is that terrorists practice role specificity to maximize operational efficiency. Good to know. Maybe the CIA should try that, too. Then it might be able to give us all a break from the fearful rhetoric.

The newly expired Patriot Act provisions relate to the bulk collection of domestic phone records and the authorization of multi-device wiretaps in national security cases. It hardly means that intelligence agencies won't be able to get this information if and when they need it -- it will just require a bureaucratic adjustment to do so.

The U.S. government is already letting undocumented workers flood across the southern border with Mexico. If a terrorist really wanted to do damage, he could arrive without papers or a phone and do whatever he wanted anyway.

It's the intelligence system itself -- its overall culture and the tendency to ambulance-chase the cause-du-jour -- that represents the real vulnerability. Take, for instance, Brennan discussing the Patriot Act's newly expired sections: "Whether or not it's disclosures of classified information, or whether it's changes in the law and policies, [terrorists] are looking for the seams to operate within."

No, actually, they're running roughshod in Iraq and Syria right now in the absence of any significant military opposition. That's not simply a dodgy "seam" they're exploiting -- that's a full-on wardrobe malfunction squarely in the CIA's jurisdiction of accountability. And it all happened as everyone's attention was distracted for several months by Russian President Vladimir Putin's intrusion into Ukraine.

Meanwhile, redundancies abound -- if not between intelligence agencies themselves, then with private contractors who further displace accountability. Everyone -- every federal agency, bureau and assorted cronies thereof -- wants to capitalize on the newest headline-grabbing threat. One moment it's Iran and nukes, another it's cyberattacks or the Islamic State. If a terrorist slips through the cracks, it will be because no one could stay in their lane and be accountable for their own driving. Instead, they veer in and out, barreling toward wherever the intelligence budget happens to be headed at any given time.

"The tools that the government has used over the last dozen years to keep this country safe are integral to making sure that we're able to stop terrorists in their tracks," Brennan said.

Right. And the tools that remain should still be more than adequate. If not, then perhaps some of the tools need to be kicked to the curb? Maybe the problem is that there are far too many tools of questionable value.

The CIA is even creating a new "directorate of digital innovation" to chase the cyber-ambulance and capitalize on the endless publicity around hacking incidents. Not that the CIA doesn't already have a directorate of science and technology, or that the National Security Agency doesn't have an entire agency to deal with the exact same matters. Let's just create a whole new bureaucracy in the interests of ginning up some more cash, rather than getting the existing directorates to simply share amongst themselves. Sharing saves money, which is why mom always made us do it. Mom would clearly make a bad CIA director.

The American taxpayers have been more than generous with the CIA and their National Intelligence Program counterparts, providing these agencies with $45.2 billion in annual funding, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. At that price, there is pretty much no excuse for a terrorist attack -- and even less of an excuse to provoke fear among those who are paying that bill.

The U.S. intelligence community needs to take steps to maximize effectiveness and knock off the fearmongering -- whether that means eliminating redundant roles or positions, firing and replacing incompetents, re-establishing operational boundaries, or reaffirming priorities that aren't vulnerable to the media cycle and assorted whims.

All the hyperventilation does little more than lend credence to Snowden's claims of misplaced priorities and resources in the intelligence community. Americans deserve to have the quietly confident security services that they've paid for, without the endless opportunistic public posturing.