Information overload threatening to choke response to terror


AMERICA:A report on the colossal counter-terrorism intelligence industry in the US shows that it may be drowning in an ocean of raw data

THIS, I suspect, is how empires die: over-extended, asphyxiated by bureaucracy, drowning in information they cannot adequately assess or act upon.

The Washington Postpublished a stunning, three-day series totalling 11 pages this week on “Top Secret America”. It was the result of an investigation over two years by Dana Priest and William Arkin into the explosion of the intelligence industry since September 11th, 2001.

Consider the statistics: 1,271 government organisations and 1,931 private companies are now devoted to counter-terrorism, “homeland security” and intelligence, in 10,000 locations across the US. An estimated 854,000 Americans – 1.5 times the population of Washington DC – hold top secret security clearances. Nearly one-third of them are private contractors.

About half of Top Secret America is concentrated in a swathe of land running diagonally from Virginia to the southwest, across Washington DC and into Maryland to the northeast. In the Washington area alone, 33 top-secret building complexes, some of them unmarked and windowless behind high fences, have been or are being built since 9/11. They total 1.6 million sq m (17 million sq ft), the equivalent of 22 US Capitol buildings.

Turf battles between intelligence agencies, the habit of holding information close to the chest and the impossibility of co-ordinating so much activity makes for huge amounts of duplication. For example, 51 federal organisations and military commands are dedicated to tracking the money of terrorists.

The volume of reporting generated by Top Secret America – 50,000 intelligence reports each year – means no one has a full grasp of what is known. As James Clapper, President Obama’s nominee for director of national intelligence, told the Post: “There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all (top secret programmes) – that’s God.”

“The complexity of this system defies description,” said another high-ranking source, retired army Lt Gen John Vines, commissioned to track intelligence at the Department of Defence. The Postconcluded that despite a 250 per cent increase in intelligence spending since 9/11, despite the creation or restructuring of 263 organisations, “the problems that gusher of money and bureaucracy were meant to solve . . . have not been alleviated”. Agencies are still failing to share information or “connect the dots”.

America may not be measurably safer for the more than $75 billion (€58 billion) it spends each year on intelligence.

The National Security Agency intercepts and stores 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other communications daily. But the NSA and other agencies doing similar work don’t have enough analysts and translators to process the information they cull.

One could argue that the absence of large-scale, lethal attacks on the US continent since 9/11 shows the system is working. But three recent cases show how Top Secret America failed to forestall real threats.

Last November, US army Maj Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others. When he was training as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, Hasan had warned his superiors of “adverse events” if Muslims were not allowed to leave the army. And he exchanged e-mails with Anwar Awlaki, a radical cleric based in Yemen whom the US has targeted for assassination.

But the army’s intelligence unit did not notice Hasan’s behaviour. Its programme, called RITA for Radical Islamic Threat to the Army, was too busy replicating work by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI on Islamist student groups in the US.

Last autumn, President Obama signed a secret order to send dozens of commandos to Yemen, where they set up an intelligence centre bristling with hi-tech equipment. Their voluminous reports were bundled into the 5,000 pieces of data sent daily to the National Counter-terrorism Centre in Washington. Buried in the deluge was the news that a radical Nigerian student had visited Yemen, that a Nigerian father was worried about his son who’d gone to Yemen.

But when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow himself up on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day, the aircraft was saved by a passenger who saw smoke coming from Abdulmutallab’s underwear and tackled him, preventing him from detonating the device.

Likewise, it was a vendor in Manhattan who alerted police to a home-made car bomb on Times Square at the beginning of May. Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born American citizen who concocted the mix of fertiliser and bleach, was also in contact with Anwar Awlaki.

The Postreports that analysts working on the “priority countries” of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan know little about them and do not speak their languages, yet produce an “overwhelming” number of reports.

The many-tentacled intelligence community in the US seems blighted by two of the same woes as US journalism: the same information is rehashed over and over, and recipients are powerless to sift through the glut of material.