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The High Cost of Intelligence Secrecy

Arnaud de Borchgrave By Wednesday, 16 January 2008 08:25 AM EST Current | Bio | Archive

Some 14 million U.S. government documents a year are classified confidential, secret, and top secret for more than 29 million that are declassified — at a total cost of $9 billion, up $3.5 billion since the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For the past two years, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has been trying to make security clearances uniform and interchangeable among the 16 intelligence agencies he overseas. But he's still waiting for congressional action. If he transfers a senior employee from the National Security Agency to the CIA, the security clearance has to start all over again, and it can take up to nine months.

A standardized system would save $3 billion.

The cult of secrecy coupled with bureaucratic sclerosis has given some 4,000 federal employees the power to classify documents. But 84 percent of federal agencies can't keep up with Freedom of Information Act requests. It took the CIA 20 years to declassify the fact Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator, had a taste for distilled wine. In 2006, $134 was spent creating new secrets for every dollar spent releasing old secrets.

"Yankee White" clearances are given to a select few who work directly for POTUS (the president) and who are entitled to any information anywhere irrespective of classification. But the select few must be natural-born U.S. citizens, bereft of any foreign influence, which applies to foreign-born wives, even if naturalized.

There is now belated recognition that "Open Source Information" is the missing dimension of classified intelligence. Ninety percent of government secrets are obtainable through open sources. It was this belated realization that moved McConnell to appoint an assistant director of national intelligence for open source and the National Open Source Center. OSINT now has counterparts in each of the 16 agencies.

A consensus also exists that OSINT constitutes an essential component of analytical products. President Kennedy once confided to a close friend that he got more out of The New York Times than the CIA. Those were the days when hundreds of foreign correspondents, all recognized experts in their assigned countries and regions, frequently with better sources than the CIA station chief, were constantly ahead of the curve.

Those halcyon days of foreign reporting are largely history. Drastic cost-cutting has pruned increasingly expensive foreign assignments.

Another impediment to good analytical intelligence is the youth and inexperience of some 45,000 analysts in the 16 intel agencies. Most of them were hired after Sept. 11. Their average length of service is just over five years — and many of the best ones are hired away by Fortune 100 corporations at triple their government salary.

Intelligence agencies, major publications and corporate chieftains the world over now turn to the Rolls-Royce of open sources — Oxford Analytica. Its daily briefs draw from more than 1,000 expert professors at Oxford and universities on five continents, and former intelligence service chiefs.

About 35 of them meet by conference call daily to discuss the latest crisis and assess its importance and likely impact, which is then e-mailed to 49 governments (with hundreds of access points) and hundreds of corporate clients at $100 per day.

Subscribers pay $35,000 a year for their daily assessments. "Prospects 2008" on "Key themes and issues for the year ahead" is pricey at $3,500 for non-subscribers and $1,000 for regular clients. Its 261 pages cover every major country, region and transnational issue (e.g., Islamist terrorism, climate change). Its forecast for the U.S. elections is a Democratic president, "with narrow majorities for the party in both Chambers of Congress."

Other sample predictions (among hundreds):

  • Islamist terrorism is a security threat that will span a generation. The war in Iraq threatens to reinforce the threat through diffusion of tactics and the strategic distraction of the United States.

  • Political instability and fluidity in Pakistan has relieved pressure on al-Qaida, which has reconstituted a base in Pakistan's northwest and maintained operational links in North Africa and elsewhere.

  • Al-Qaida sympathizers of diverse national origins are acquiring urban warfare skills in Iraq. Jihadists with Iraqi experience have been linked to attacks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Kingdom.

  • The one bright spot is Southeast Asia, where efforts to contain several organizations have yielded some successes.

  • In Iran, the year ahead will determine whether the radicalism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is merely a temporary setback in Iran's post-Khomeini path of pragmatism and reform, or a permanent repudiation of the Rafsanjani and Khatami years and a return to the turmoil of the 1980s.

  • Iran's pragmatist/reformist opposition is likely to triumph in the March 2008 Majlis elections.

  • Further sanctions are unlikely to deflect Tehran from its nuclear defiance.

  • Iran will press ahead with its nuclear program until it masters the fuel cycle, and then will seek to enter into serious negotiations with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.

  • The latest U.S. intelligence estimate of Iran's nuclear ambitions has given Tehran room to breathe.

  • Bush enters the final year of his presidency "badly wrong-footed in almost every area of U.S. Middle East policy, and risks leaving office having accomplished none of his goals in the region."

  • Bush will hand over the Iraq, Iran, and Israeli-Palestinian problems to his successor in substantial disarray. The Middle East democratization push he cast as the signature effort of his second term has been all but abandoned.

  • Risk aversion in credit markets will be prominent in 2008. This means material retrenchment for the U.S. consumer, erstwhile motor of global growth. Nonetheless, a pickup in investment spending in the developing world will keep real growth in the 2-3 percent range. Combined with a sharply weaker U.S. currency, this will be the beginning of a long-awaited "global rebalancing."

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    Some 14 million U.S. government documents a year are classified confidential, secret, and top secret for more than 29 million that are declassified — at a total cost of $9 billion, up $3.5 billion since the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.For the past two years, Director...
    Wednesday, 16 January 2008 08:25 AM
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