For many who live in Washington, reminders of the defense and intelligence community’s excesses are in our face every day.  Like Big Pharma, who each night tells “CBS Evening News”-watching senior citizens that they need a new drug, defense contractors know that mid-level bureaucrats ride the subway to work like everyone else.  They constantly pay for large advertisements like this series of Northrop Grumman billboards, which I photographed in a Washington Metro station the other day:

Defense Ads

This week, in a multi-part series called “Top Secret America”, the Washington Post confirmed just how large the DC intel complex is.  Though the details in this exposé have been a fascinating read, it’s amazing more hasn’t been made of this runaway federal spending sooner. Since 9/11 and the USA PATRIOT Act, we have been unwilling to face up to the fact that the intelligence community is out of control. Given a blank check after the terrorist attacks, it has grown so fast that—even if Congress wanted to do oversight—a map of the new intelligence complex is indecipherable to even the most able Washington analyst.

As the Post shows, a portrait of the American intelligence community now resembles the justifiably lampooned slide on Afghanistan strategy presented to Gen. McChrystal last spring.  Like this famous powerpoint slide on the mess in Afghanistan, the intelligence community’s organizational chart looks like entangled spaghetti, with duplicated efforts and no central coordination as promised when Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2004.

The Post series begins to fill in the canvas, and it’s staggering how big the pile of spaghetti actually is.  But what’s even more disappointing (but perhaps unsurprising) is the anecdotal evidence pointing to the negative effects of close collaboration between senior government officials and private contractors.  It not only causes the massive waste of public funds, but encourages elites in large sectors of the government and the corporate world to overstate threats to national security.  At one party (I mean “conference”) for defense and intelligence officials hosted by the corporate world

Kevin P. Meiners, a deputy undersecretary for intelligence, gave the audience what he called “the secret sauce,” the key to thriving even when the Defense Department budget eventually stabilizes and stops rising so rapidly. “Overhead,” Meiners told them – that’s what’s going to get cut first. Overhead used to mean paper clips and toner. Now it’s information technology, IT, the very products and services sold by the businesspeople in the audience. “You should describe what you do as a weapons system, not overhead,” Meiners instructed. “Overhead to them – I’m giving you the secret sauce here – is IT and people. . . . You have to foot-stomp hard that this is a war-fighting system that’s helping save people’s lives every day.

The ambiguous “threat” is always present, and so the perpetual War on Terror continues.  Hundreds of thousands labor at public expense to design yet another system that may or may not foil a few terrorists.  As the Post piece points out, one of the most recent attempted terrorist attacks was foiled not by Northrop Grumann—but by an alert airline passenger who noticed something wasn’t quite right.  It was this ordinary vigilant citizen, and not a “war-fighting system,” who saved lives last Christmas day.