Spending on intelligence has skyrocketed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and you get the sense that the intelligence community saw the attacks as an opportunity to expand their manpower, their budgets, and their influence. They were hugely successful. There are now 16 federal agencies involved in intelligence gathering, and they collectively employ more than 107,000 people.
The Post story focused on areas where the intelligence community apparently is unable to provide much meaningful information — like North Korea — but I think the real story is the size of our spy operations. From the President on down, I’m skeptical that there is much in the way of meaningful oversight of what those 16 different agencies are doing — to say nothing of coordination of their activities. How much assurance can we have that the agencies are complying with laws and directives, including those that prevent routine intelligence gathering about Americans engaged in domestic activities?
Size and money may allow you to buy neat spy gizmos and establish operations in faraway lands, but they also have a disadvantage. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying: “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The more people involved in secret activities, the less likely it is that they will remain secret for long. With 107,000 people involved in intelligence gathering, is it any wonder that our government leaks like a sieve and people like Edward Snowden can collect and disclose reams of classified information?
Recent congressional testimony has shed some interesting light on the treatment of Omar Abdulmutallab, the U-Trou Bomber, after his failed attempt to blow up a Northwest flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Various intelligence officials testified that they were not consulted on how best to deal with Abdulmutallab, who was promptly charged with a crime, read Miranda rights, and provided with a court-appointed lawyer. Although the Obama Administration claims that Abdulmutallab provided some intelligence information, no effort was made to have him questioned by intelligence officials to see whether he could provide even more information. Even the Washington Post, in an editorial published yesterday, has criticized that approach.
From the standpoint of constitutional rights and protections, a foreign national clearly is different from an American citizen, and an attempted terrorist attack undertaken pursuant to instructions from an entity that is at war with the United States is different from a criminal act. Moreover, national security considerations related to getting fresh, actionable intelligence from the failed attacker may trump whatever minimal constitutional protections might apply at the point the terrorist is first detained. If Abdulmutallab could have provided immediate intelligence on the whereabouts of the al Qaeda operatives who trained and equipped him for his mission, such that we could promptly target and respond to those operatives, that possibility should have been incorporated into the analysis of how to deal with him. For all of these reasons, simply equating a foiled terrorist with a common criminal and treating them in the same way seems foolish and dangerous, unnecessarily hamstringing our ability to fight a shadowy organization committed to doing us harm.
I hope that the Obama Administration revisits its procedures and at least involves its intelligence agencies in the decision-making process the next time a failed terrorist is caught. Unfortunately for all of us, these kinds of opportunities aren’t commonplace. The U-Trou Bomber failed only because his ignition device misfired. How often will we have the chance to obtain fresh intelligence from a shaken, unsuccessful terrorist? Let’s hope that, if there is a next time, we take better advantage of that opportunity.