The contretemps over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been occasion for a raft of commentary taking President Obama’s lack of competence as the defining feature of the affair. And while there is certainly ample cause to call into question the merits of the deal with the Taliban, the wisdom of Mr. Obama’s highly misleading press conference with the Sergeant’s parents, and the subsequent reappearance of the wondrous Susan Rice on the Sunday morning talk shows, to my mind the most troubling aspect of the Bergdahl affair has to do with how someone so obviously troubled made his way into the ranks in the first place.
Like the deeply troubled Pfc. Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning before him, Bergdahl should never have been accepted into the ranks in the first place. He was admitted into the Army largely because an incompetent President, going against the wishes of the country, decided to double down on an ill-conceived and grossly mismanaged war. The story of how Bergdahl, who was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons in 2006, found his way back into what we are endlessly told is the greatest military in the history of the world, is profoundly discouraging. The Washington Post reports that by 2008, the year Bergdahl enlisted, the Army was issuing waivers to those with criminal backgrounds, health issues, and “other problems” at the rate of one for every five recruits. This perhaps points to a larger problem, reaching beyond the armed services.
The post-9/11 national security state, which consists of at least 17 federal intelligence agencies and organizations, requires hundreds of thousands of individuals to staff it. In light of the cases of Messrs. Manning, Snowden, and Bergdahl, it has become increasingly clear that the government has created a significant problem for itself. This was bound to happen given the sheer numbers involved. Consider the following from the groundbreaking 2010 report by the Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin:
- Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
- An estimated 854,000 people, nearly one-and-a-half times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
Four years on, the number of security clearances issued has continued apace. According to a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence this past April, from 2012-13 the number of people deemed “eligible” for access to classified information increased by nearly a quarter of a million people. Roughly 5.15 million people currently hold security clearances, out of which around a million are outside contractors, about half of whom hold a top-secret clearance.
The conversation that needs to be going on should be focused on whether the national security structure, as it stands right now, is actually supportable. The Bergdahl affair ought to serve as a warning that as we keep expanding the military and enlarging the intelligence apparatus, the law of diminishing returns will (and probably has) set in. Yet no one in Washington ever thinks to say: enough. It’s past time for Congress to reconsider the efficacy, to say nothing of the desirability, of the post-9/11 national security leviathan.