The events of 9/11 came as a tremendous shock to America. Equally shocking was the failure of the intelligence community to detect and prevent these attacks. It was a failure to "connect the dots," explained Richard Shelby, vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in his investigative report issued in December 2002.
This failure to "connect the dots" was vividly explained by Malcolm Gladwell in an article in The New Yorker on March 10, 2003. For Gladwell, the lesson was that "intelligence is invariably ambiguous," and it was this ambiguity, not the limitations of our intelligence community, that was chiefly responsible for our failure to predict and prevent 9/11.
The question is: How do we disambiguate the ambiguity? How do we connect the dots? The answer seems straightforward enough: We need to work smarter. We need better trained agents. We need agents who speak the languages of terrorist hotspots, who know the cultures of these areas, who have the discerning eyes and ears to separate invaluable nuggets from valueless dross. And we need better cooperation and information-sharing among our intelligence agencies. We need to put the "community" back in the intelligence community.
Yet, more than ten years after 9/11, it seems our intelligence community is only getting more and more bloated, not leaner and smarter. As Tom Engelhardt notes, we now have seventeen major intelligence agencies, funded to the tune of $80 billion per year and growing, chasing and collecting everything about everyone. (As an aside, it's worth noting that the federal government now spends more on collecting intelligence than it does on building the intelligence of America's youth through the Department of Education.)
To this end, the National Security Agency (NSA), known humorously as "Nonesuch Agency" due to its inherent secrecy, is building a $2 billion colossus in Utah to collect and store oceans of data, from "the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails -- parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'"
Not only are our intelligence agencies bloated: so too are their appetites for data.
Lost is the lesson of 9/11: We didn't have a collection problem but a connection one. Yet our response has largely been not to find better ways of connecting the dots, but rather simply to collect more dots. But collecting and storing more dots is likely to make it harder, not easier, to connect them -- to find the right pattern and to act on it in a timely fashion.
At a time when we're all being told to do more with less, our bloated intelligence community may be dooming itself to doing less with more. Too many agencies, chasing too much data, with vital nuggets getting lost. At a time when our agencies should be investing in agents who are educated to think outside the box, they've simply built bigger boxes.
Yet by expanding our "intelligence" boxes, we have even more trouble seeing out of them.
By confining ourselves to bigger boxes that both create and hold more red tape, we're also building our own prison. The more intelligence centers we create, the more data we collect and store on ourselves and our fellow citizens, the more our country comes to resemble a Panopticon. We are less as a society, we are less as individuals, we have less dignity and autonomy, the more our rights to privacy are stripped away from us in the name of "security."
A leaner, smarter, more discerning intelligence community is what we need, not a bloated bureaucracy with ever bigger boxes -- and ever growing invasive powers.