Ubiquitous fictional depictions of dashing spies with expensive high-tech “toys” may be entertaining, but they tend to distort public understanding and inflate both fears and expectations of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). This distortion of reality engenders a belief that the IC is dangerously omniscient and capable of knowing and doing just about anything it wishes. Misguided or misinformed journalists exacerbate public mistrust, revealing the IC’s technical capabilities and reviling examples of bureaucratic bloat, redundancy and its purported inability to “connect the dots.” Even in normal times such mischaracterizations are unhelpful, but in a period of budgetary stringency inflected by political demands for magic-bullet solutions they have the potential to trigger “reforms” that will do more harm than good.
We do need reform, and we need to accomplish it within an IC budget that should be reduced as part of the broader effort to realign Federal government expenditures and revenues. Nor should those reductions be left to the IC itself. Many in the IC support reductions in total spending only if their own authorities can determine how best to achieve mandated reductions. But precisely because intelligence is a support function, policymakers are obliged to specify where they are willing to accept the increased risks inherent in making decisions with less information.
Making such choices will not be easy. One of the reasons the IC budget has grown so much in the past decade is that politicians and policymakers have been no more willing to make tough choices on intelligence expenditures than on most other matters. Their demonstrated lack of will, and a political atmosphere in which simple—and often simple-minded—solutions play so well with the public, create a real danger that budget cuts will bring mandates to “fix” intelligence in counterproductive ways.
Preventing the wrong kind of reform should begin with an exercise in dotology: the careful study of dots. We need to pay particular attention to the mutual connectedness of dots, their ideal number, their protection, reliability, intelligence and future.
Connections: Fortunately, the U.S. IC is neither dangerous nor particularly incompetent, as these things go. But it is improvable. IC professionals know their strengths and weaknesses and are willing (if not always eager) to embrace effective change. But they understand that fixing any specific shortcoming could create adverse consequences for other IC missions and responsibilities, because all the IC dots are connected to each other in one way or another. Those connections display certain inevitable tensions for the simple reason that the IC exists solely to support the missions and requirements of other U.S. government agencies whose purposes and interests are themselves in (we hope healthy) tension. The challenge, then, is to devise transformational...