what should we get for $44 billion?

(New York City) The director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, recently disclosed that 100,000 people work for the US intelligence agencies. Not long before that disclosure, his deputy, Mary Margaret Graham, let slip that the intelligence budget of the United States is $44 billion.

I’m in favor of getting good intelligence, but those numbers look huge when put in context. The total cost of research in American degree-granting universities was $18 billion in 2000-2001. That figure excluded overhead (the cost of libraries, cafeterias, heating bills, etc). Furthermore, academic research is more expensive in 2006 than it was five years ago. Nevertheless, it appears that the intelligence agencies of the US spend more than the cost of research in all 4,236 American institutions of higher education put together.

I realize that intelligence is more expensive than some other forms of research, because some of the data must be collected against foreign countries’ will–which requires spy satellites, bugs, and bribes. But colleges and universities study a huge range of subjects (from global warming to ancient Sumerian) for a total that is smaller than what the US government spends to investigate foreign states and organizations.

A tiny proportion of academic research goes, for example, to studying modern Iraq. But is there any doubt that the academic experts on Iraq better predicted the results of an invasion than the $44-billion intelligence agencies? The same agencies utterly misunderstood the course of events in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Middle East in 1973, Iran in 1979, the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Pakistan since 2000, and the Palestinian territories in the recent elections.

As libertarians and free-market conservatives should be the first to suspect, a monopolistic, bureaucratic, closed system of intelligence gathering is unlikely to be anything other than inefficient and incompetent. It may amass piles of secret data (to justify enormous budgets and to give it access to information that no one else has), but it will fail to interpret, synthesize, or predict. The late Senator Moynihan once wrote that during the Cold War, “error became a distinctive feature of the [national security] system. This is easy enough to explain. As everything became secret, it became ever more difficult to correct mistakes. Why? Because most of the people who might spot the mistakes were kept from knowing about them because the mistakes were classified.” [Moynihan, “The Peace Dividend,” New York Review of Books, (June 28, 1990), p. 3.]

With this warning in mind, we read that a CIA employee or alumnus was recently “refused permission to publish an op-ed article that drew on material from the agency’s Web site”; and the Agency’s inspector general has been given, or has chosen to take, a lie-detector test–but he cannot publicly say why.

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