I really was looking forward to a Snowden-free discussion this month but then the Washington Post on the last Wednesday in August published its “Black Intelligence Budget” story so we are going to divert there briefly before turning to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in rebel held regions of Syria.
I suspect to its great disappointment the Washington Post story outlining with interactive web-technology the budgets of each major national intelligence agency based on information provided from a top secret codeword document Snowden accessed and downloaded failed to create much of a buzz amongst the beltway chattering class. The reasons for this collective yawn seem attributable to Syria sucking most of the air out of Washington; Congress being in recess; the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech activities; and the jaded sense that $70 billion spread over numerous agencies sounds like chump change in a federal budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion.
The chattering and the damage though is coming – - – - when the budget debates begin again this fall as those seeking more money for social welfare programs as well as those looking for dollars for DoD will both say “can’t we take it from the NIP or MIP ?” Zachery Keck has already advised readers of “The Diplomat” that based on the Post’s reporting the US IC’s budget is larger than the defense budgets of all but three nation states, while in a September 1st OpEd IC-friendly David Ignatius commented that “the United States has been spending an awful lot for intelligence, especially at the CIA, without getting enough in return.”
It will be interesting to see if anybody believing they now know what the IC spends by INT/Agency knocks the wheels off of the IC wagon, but I expect democracy and the IC will continue as we know it, though with a muted but intense argument amongst civil libertarians and protectors of national security about whether we are safer or not because this information has been revealed. As for me I am not sure. Since I don’t know (nor do I know anybody who claims to know) what a pound of IC capability is worth, I never have been able to establish even a crude objective criterion for determining how much the US should spend annually for intelligence.
As for getting value from its investment in intelligence, President Obama is relying on the IC to make the case to the world at large, the US Congress, and the American people that Syrian President Assad wittingly used chemical weapons against rebel held areas on 21 August killing over 1,400 civilian non-combatants. As with Iraq in 2003, apparently the decision again to use military force will be dependent on the IC showing beyond a reasonable doubt that a secular autocrat of an Arab state with interests opposed to the United States’ is a dangerous possessor of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). While that is a meaningful function for the IC to perform, Assad has been killing Syrians for years now and if that is dangerously destabilizing to a region that matters to US security, then an armed response should be justified on that basis, and not on whether we have intelligence to prove he gassed women and children.
There are other important intelligence questions though that go beyond determining if Assad used chemical weapons, such as indications and warning (I&W) and motivation associated with this attack.
Based on the way the Obama Administration has shifted its policy decisions regarding the chemical weapons attack that Secretary of State Kerry says the IC has confirmed, I am surmising there was no “actionable” I&W indicating that Syrian military forces were preparing to launch chemical weapons. Given the President’s red line warning, I at least would like to believe that with sufficient I&W he would have had capabilities ready to pre-empt or at least interrupt such an attack if calling these preparations out to the world did not deter it. To Ignatius’ point about not getting what we should from the IC in terms of money spent, operational I&W is an intelligence shortfall that can be traced back to the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing in 1983 and runs through Kohbar Towers, the East Africa Embassy Bombings, USS Cole, and 9/11.
OK, I&W is hard and everybody is trying to improve it. However, now that Assad has used chemical weapons in a way that is not plausibly deniable even by diplomatic standards, I believe a more important question for the IC is not whether Assad used chemical weapons, but why used them with the world watching and with an explicit warning on the table from the US president? The simplest and therefore must plausible reason is Assad and his “Alawite Posse” in Damascus – not wanting to end up like Mubarak (or Morsi) in Egypt and Kaddafi in Libya – decided in frustration and anger that it was time to dramatically force an end to the rebellion against their rule. But I can’t discount that the decision to employ chemical weapons was more calculated with patrons in Iran providing to Assad most of the numbers. Use chemical weapons and if the US doesn’t act it loses creditability in the ME. If the US does act then there is the likelihood of it being sucked into another expensive protracted conflict that saps power and diverts attention from Iran and its ambitions. A military response also adds to the drum beat in the Muslim World that US is always ready to act against countries with Muslim populations. Weathering the attack will show the ineffectiveness of US military force and the staying power of the Assad regime. The potential for a divide between the legislative and the executive branch over the use of military force is a benefit nobody in the autocratic ME seriously considered! If this calculating scenario is what is happening, then the smartest politicians in this story are not in Washington or Damascus but in Tehran.
With regard to the question of whether the US is getting its money’s worth from the $70 billion dollars or so it spends on intelligence each year, the value proposition for American national security is the degree to which its IC can both warn and accurately inform decision makers beyond “what” is happening to “why” events are unfolding the way they are.
That’s what I think: what do you think?