Washington, Snowden, NSA: Learning the Right Lessons

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

27 June 2013

Why is Anyone Surprised?

It’s been out there for years. Utter the words “bomb,” “president,” or “Allah” on the phone, a computer will recognize it, record it, and then red flag it for analysis. Use the wrong word and things will get worse.

The leaks from National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden showed what Hollywood has been telling all along: Big Brother is watching you. All you had to do was pay attention.

Problem

Of course, the biggest problems with the NSA’s eavesdropping activities are government overreach and the threat to personal liberties. But these problems are a result of another one that is quite telling about how Washington has dealt with national security since 9/11.

One of the most important responses to the 9/11 attacks was the passage of the PATRIOT Act. The act gave the federal government authority to oversee anything from financial transactions to border control and from immigration to communication.

But what Washington has not yet done is to create a professional cadre of civil servants to run those operations.

Yes, there is the vast bureaucratic enterprise that we know as the Department of Homeland Security. Set up in late 2002, the agency has grown to employ nearly 250,000 people on a budget of $60 billion. It’s the third largest Cabinet department. Military and intelligence expenditures have also shot up.

But numbers can be deceiving. As the Washington Post reported nearly three years ago, for the 250,000 people employed by Homeland Security, the U.S. government relies on nearly 2,000 private companies employing hundreds of thousands who work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in the United States. Quite often, different government agencies and contractors do the same work, which creates redundancy and waste. To “get the job done,” more than 850,000 people have been granted top secret security clearances.

That’s the problem. With so many agencies, companies, and contractors in the mix, redundancy, waste, and, yes, leaks are inevitable. A government outsourcing national security is quite different than a credit card company outsourcing call centers.

Edward Snowden
Will Snowden’s unfortunate actions give way to fortunate results? It’s Washington’s call.

Solution

What is the solution then? History might provide us an answer.

At the onset of the Cold War, the Truman administration tried to combine different segments of the federal government doing similar work. The Central Intelligence Agency came into existence (NSA did, too, a few years later) and took over almost all overseas intelligence operations from the State Department and the military. The War and Navy departments gave way to the Department of Defense. These were smart moves. Others, such as the attempted liquidation of the Marine Corps, were more questionable.

Nevertheless, reducing redundancy in government was a sound one. Today, it could teach Washington a thing or two. Drone strikes – essentially a military operation – are run by the CIA. The U.S. military is still doing nation-building in Afghanistan (and might well do so in other places in the future).

These agencies may or may not be the best tools for the job. Carefully defining areas of operation for different agencies would help to avoid overlaps and ensure efficiency. Training a cadre of civil servants who would view their work as one of a life-time rather than “a one-year thing” would boost counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence efforts in the United States and around the world.

There is clearly a way – by no means easy or cheap but very necessary – to ensure America’s safety without violating the Constitution. Let us hope the Snowden scandal will teach Washington that lesson.

Barın Kayaoğlu, a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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