Judge Posner on Washington Post National Security Report

'Top Secret America'—A Bust
Richard A. Posner
The New Republic
July 29, 2010

In late July the Washington Post published an ambitious report on U.S. national security intelligence that we are told had taken the Post’s staff two years to complete. The project was led by two competent and experienced reporters, Dana Priest and William Arkin, and the report has received an enthusiastic press. Having written about national security intelligence in books like Countering Terrorism: Blurred Focus, Halting Steps (2007), I was looking forward to reading the Post’s report.

The report is, in fact, a disappointment. It is descriptive rather than analytic, and the description is based entirely on two types of data, neither of which contributes to an understanding of the nature and problems of the nation’s intelligence system. The two types are statistics indicating the size and organizational complexity of national security intelligence, and expressions of exasperation at that size and complexity by former or current insiders.

The statistics are not broken down by each of the principal domains of national security intelligence, and so the reader is given no sense of the actual structure of the intelligence system. Five aspects need to be distinguished. The first is routine military intelligence—military intelligence unrelated to ongoing combat. The military has to keep tabs on the capabilities, deployments, intentions, and so forth of the armed forces of foreign countries even when it is not fighting them. Second, there is combat intelligence, which at present is focused on Afghanistan but extends to other areas as well, such as Iraq, Yemen, and the Philippines. This second area of military intelligence overlaps the third and fourth domains of national security intelligence—counterterrorist intelligence conducted abroad and at home, the latter complicated by sensitivities to potential violations of privacy and civil liberties. Last, and overlapping all the others, is the traditional kind of foreign intelligence conducted by the CIA, which includes wide-ranging intelligence analysis, recruitment of foreign agents, counterintelligence, and paramilitary operations in support of U.S. foreign policy.

Richard A. Posner