Fixing the multi-agency, multi-target, multi-operation American intelligence disorder?

The US has 16 different intelligence agencies (See this graph in a recent FT article).  German tax payers also pay for the questionable luxury to entertain an equal number state-level intelligence agencies next to the three federal intelligence services. Both countries are – to say it diplomatically – organisationally and logistically challenged as a result.

Followers of the Bundestag’s BND-inquiry (2006-2009) might remember some of the testimonies by state-level intelligence officers. They were entirely embarassing for the intelligence community and the government at large. Through this rare keyhole of intelligence politics, the public learned about the duplication of investigative tasks, disorganisation, amenities, ill-communication and arbitrary work ethics. This sparked a debate whether or not to reduce the number of intelligence agencies in Germany. Yet, as ever so often with intelligence politics, despite a debate, the politics machine moved on without seriously addressing the issue.

In the US, the situation is very similar. Here, too, we find an inability/unwillingness to change the obviously sub-standard status quo. The 9/11 Commission called for swift changes but any real down-sizing of the US intelligence community has yet to see the light of day.

A common-sense resolution to the problem of intelligence compartmentalisation comes from the fringe — i.e. by two professors who rarely reflect on intelligence politics. Richard A. Posner and Luis Garicano compare the deplorable status quo of the US intelligence community with that of the US car giant GM and propose similar radical measures to get a grip on the problem.

« The domestic automakers’ organizational structures were notoriously complex and top-heavy. While Toyota had been selling the same car worldwide, Ford had insisted that American consumers would not buy the cars successfully produced by Ford for sale in Europe. As a result, every stage of production from R&D to actual manufacturing was duplicated in the two markets.


We have an unwieldy multiplicity of agencies that operate largely independently. Dysfunctional bureaucratic incentives decree that an attack involving a repetition of a known terrorist procedure is the most damaging politically, so shoes are scanned because a shoe was used in an attempted airplane bombing. Now underwear will be scanned as well. The government seems always to be playing catch-up to the terrorists.

We can fix this. As with the auto industry, the moment of crisis is the right moment to tackle in-depth reform of the intelligence services. One possibility that deserves serious consideration would be a consolidation of most existing agencies into four primary agencies: a foreign intelligence agency, a military intelligence agency, a domestic intelligence agency, and a technical data collection agency (satellite mapping, electronic interception, etc.).

This structure would mimic the United Kingdom’s MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), Defence Intelligence Agency, MI5 (the Security Service), and GCHQ (General Communications Headquarters). In a streamlined system, the Director of National Intelligence would be a coordinator, rather than combining the role of a coordinator with that of the president’s senior substantive intelligence officer. (As if the CEO of Boeing also designed the companies planes). »

The authors’ suggestion is straight-forward and entails a rare padding on the back of the currently quite scandal-ridden UK intelligence community. At least in organisational terms, it teaches a lesson to its American and German partners. With the current setup of the UK intelligence community,  it seems a lot harder to envision the following scenario:  (see the clip from CBO’s « The Agency » below).


A propos Thorsten Wetzling

Thorsten Wetzling is currently working as a visiting research fellow with the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. His post-doctoral research on intelligence oversight and accountability is supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
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