The problem with the revelation that the United States failed to quickly process key intelligence about Syria’s gas attack is less about what happened in Syria – although that is horrifying – as it is about the state of U.S. intelligence capacity 12 years after the 9/11 terror attacks. We are still not where we need to be.
The story in the weeks after the 2001 attacks was that various parts of the American intelligence infrastructure had information that could have been used to predict or at least suspect that an attack was impending. But there was a failure to connect the dots, in part because the intelligence system was fractured and even competitive. The swift creation of the over-arching Department of Homeland Security was supposed to rectify that problem.
Clearly, more needs to be done.
There was no public explanation for the delay in processing the intelligence from Syria, but current and former intelligence officials told the Associated Press that analysts were stretched too thin with the multiple streams of intelligence coming out of multiple conflict zones, from Syria to Libya to Yemen.
Given that failure, it is necessary to ask a troubling question: What if the threat had been against American interests, even an attack on American soil?
The problem was spelled out last month in top-secret government documents acquired by the Washington Post from former intelligence contractor Eric Snowden. According to the “black budget” summary, as reported in the Post, spy agencies remain unable to provide critical information to the president on many national security threats, despite the massive buildup of intelligence capacity.
That’s disturbing enough, but the point of reorganizing the American intelligence structure wasn’t simply to expand the reach of U.S. spying, but to streamline the processing and sharing of information. That also isn’t happening, at least not sufficiently.
What is more, it is a fair interpretation that the country is not getting its money’s worth. According to the documents Snowden leaked, U.S. intelligence spending has doubled since 2001. The country’s 16 spy agencies have together requested $56 billion in their 2013 budget.
This doesn’t mean the agencies are failing. There have been no successful foreign attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, although there have been internal acts of terrorism, including the bombings at this year’s Boston Marathon. Some of that success, including a thwarted attack on the New York City subway system, is directly due to the work of U.S. intelligence agencies.
But the inability to puzzle out the impending gas attack in Syria in time to do something should be a wake-up call to Congress and the Obama administration.
No nation can stop every attack, but when the country’s spending on intelligence has doubled and it still isn’t able to achieve the goal of a more-unified intelligence system, then someone needs to take notice. We have already learned the costs of failure.