How the US spends $68 Billion on intelligence, with very little to show for it

A  Billion is a big number. How do you quantify it? We know theoretically that it is a thousand million. But sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around a figure so large. So, let’s try to put it in other terms. I was told once by some finance geek that if you stacked a million dollar bills one on top of the other, the pile would be as tall as New York City’s Empire State Building. Or, put another way- all the minutes from the birth of Christ to the present would approximate about a billion minutes. We’d all agree that it’s a lot.

So when in this article it is revealed that America’s intelligence agencies combined annual budget is $68 million, we can better appreciate just what an astronomical sum we are talking about. This is at the heart of a piece penned by Tom Engelhardt last week in MotherJones. The article examines the scope and effectiveness of America’s 17 intelligence agencies, with a view toward determining whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

In the wide-ranging treatise, in order to make such a call the author looks at what the agencies do, and what they failed to do in the past. The result is a sobering look at the behemoth that is the American spy network. It’s not a pretty sight.

The agencies have listened in on world leaders, spied on ordinary citizens – even invading their bedrooms – and then lied about their activities to American citizens, the politicians, and the world. They have co-opted the courts (FISA) and have conspired to stifle protest and act with impunity and disregard for individual rights under the all-inclusive banner of “national security” and laws such as the Espionage Act. Yet much of the surveillance from the nefarious metadata collections has yielded precious little in terms of actionable intelligence.

This was determined by an independent panel appointed by President Obama. But the intelligence community (IC) will point to the fact that since there has not been another 9/11 type of event, they have been effective. What about the dilemma facing us in the Middle East? Where was the valuable intelligence when ISIS was forming? Are we getting $68 billion worth of information? Then, too there’s the failure to prevent attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi. Intelligence failures in those instances are alarming.

The writer also points to the number of domestic deaths which have occurred due to other events since 9/11 such as the 400,000 firearm deaths or the 450,000 traffic deaths on our roads. Could a fraction of the spy agencies billions have been diverted to prevent actual deaths instead of possible terrorist deaths? Something to think about. In fact the only intelligence coup it can point to since 9/11 is the killing of a solitary life – Osama bin Laden. They hang their hats on this.

The author rightly states that,

Clearly, having a labyrinth of 17 overlapping, paramilitarized, deeply secretive agencies doing versions of the same thing is the definition of counterproductive madness. Not surprisingly, the one thing that the US IC has resembled in all these years is the US military, which since 9/11 has failed to win a war or accomplish more or less anything it set out to do.”

No the IC is not providing the kind of intelligence that can keep the White House a step ahead of events – whether in Ukraine, the Middle East or, indeed, at home. Therefore it is time for someone with some gumption to take the ax to such waste.

9/11 was a catastrophic failure by intelligence agencies. Yet not one person lost a job over that calamity. Republicans and Democrats have had their turn at power sharing in the interim-each with dismal results. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the fact that the world is a complex dangerous place and that we never will be on top of the threat potentials. Certainly $68 billion can be better spent if the agencies are whittled down to manageable proportions.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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