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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

Spying on the bureaucracy

THE dark shroud that cloaks the federal government's spy apparatus was lifted ever so slightly last week when John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, divulged during a speech that the intelligence community has "almost 100,000 patriotic, talented, and hardworking Americans" in 16 departments and agencies.

Add that tidbit to the inadvertent disclosure last fall by one of Mr. Negroponte's deputies that the previously top-secret intelligence budget has risen to $44 billion and the public can at least start to focus on whether the nation is getting its money's worth from the folks at the National Security Agency, CIA, and elsewhere.

The intelligence director's uncharacteristic public openness was a response to bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill that creation of his position, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, did little but add to Washington's bureaucratic clutter.

Since Mr. Negroponte has been on the job only one year, an adequate gauge of his success is not yet possible. But the early reviews are less than encouraging.

A recent report by the House Intelligence Committee concluded that the national intelligence office was on its way to becoming "another layer of large, unintended, and unnecessary bureaucracy." Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, and Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, weren't shy in suggesting that Mr. Negroponte, a former ambassador, lacks the leadership capabilities for the job.

That these are the same misgivings voiced when the intelligence position first was proposed is hardly surprising.

Many in Congress firmly believe that the intelligence community, from the FBI on the domestic front to the CIA on foreign soil, did a miserable job in failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks. While there is plenty of evidence to support that contention, it's also true that those in the White House weren't paying attention to some pretty broad warnings.

In any case, adding another official to the chain of command doesn't assure better leadership, just as revelations on the scope of America's spy apparatus provide little indication of the quality of the intelligence it provides.

As one security expert told the Associated Press, "If you think about all of the infrastructure needed to support that many people, you start to get a sense of just how vast our intelligence system has become. Think about all the things going on that we don't know about."

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