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Competitive Analysis, Comparative Advantage

July 28, 2010

People in the intelligence community deal in some of the most sensitive and cynical information about our government and its operations against our adversaries. It’s no wonder spies are not generally known for their senses of humor. That said, it’s a quality that really ought to be more highly prized. If the recent remarks of James Clapper, President Obama’s nominee to become the fourth director of national intelligence, are any indication, we might have a winner.

In last week’s Washington Post series on burgeoning intelligence community contracting, Clapper was quoted as having said to a reporter that the only entity in the universe with visibility into all special access programs is God. During his confirmation hearing, he was quoted as having observed in response to a question about the series, “One man’s duplication is another man’s competitive analysis.” Funny stuff, really. At least as far as I am concerned.

Characterizing the proliferation of overlapping jurisdictions and the growth in outsourcing of analysis and technical capabilities as competitive analysis is either euphemistic or optimistic. Either way its worth asking how we would know what this incredible investment of national wealth and talent is worth to our national security.

On one hand, we are regularly reassured that al Qa’ida and its affiliates have failed to launch a successful attack against the United States homeland since the 9/11 attacks. This argument asks us to accept facts not in evidence (at least publicly), as it depends on the presumption that our intelligence community operatives are routinely interdicting our adversaries before they can cause us harm.

Over the past two years, however, a new threat has emerged in the form of homegrown, lone wolf Muslim radicals. In each of the last three attacks — Ft. Hood, the Christmas Day underwear bomber, and the amateurish Times Square attack — the perpetrators gained training or encouragement from overseas operatives. That none of them succeeded on a scale comparable to previous attacks is not for lack of trying.

If we were to judge solely by the President’s reactions to these attacks, we should wonder what if anything we are getting for our investments in the intelligence community. The President himself has characterized these attacks as evidence of failure.

I get the media interest in the intelligence community, but what really impresses me is how our fellow countrymen are responding since 9/11. People are far more aware of threats to our security and seem far more willing to become involved when they see something’s not right. In the absence of specific and direct investments in building the capacity of citizens to contribute to homeland defense and security, actively enlisting them in efforts to identify and assess threats, it seems safe to say that these actions on the part of the public have occurred in spite of, not because of, all the money we spent expanding intelligence community capabilities.

If we were to judge by results alone, the better investment is clearly an informed and engaged public. But that’s not currently on the table and no one is offering it despite evidence that the Washington Post series’ gravest potential impact is the further erosion of public trust and confidence in government administration and oversight of covert intelligence spending.

If General Clapper becomes the next director of national intelligence, which seems pretty certain at this point, we have little reason to believe that anything significant will change in our intelligence posture. This strikes me as a lost opportunity. The comparative advantages of engaging the public in the homeland security mission are much clearer than those associated with the competitive analysis of intelligence.

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