The U.S. government's intelligence agencies are out of control again.
Not in the old, rogue-elephant sense of covert operatives running private wars.
Not even in the bureaucratic sense of spending money in unauthorized ways or launching programs Congress didn't know about.
This time, the loss of control happened in plain sight, with full approval from on high.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence spending has more than doubled. The country's 16 major intelligence agencies are poorly coordinated and often duplicate one another's work. And the White House and Congress have failed to exercise firm control over the proliferation of intelligence-gathering efforts.
The Washington Post cataloged the problem in a comprehensive series of articles this week. Reporter Dana Priest and data squirrel William M. Arkin reported that more than 1,200 government agencies or offices and almost 2,000 outside contractors are involved in counter-terrorism activities, spending almost $75 billion producing about 50,000 intelligence reports each year, far more than the government can effectively digest.
The government disputes some of those figures, but not the existence of the problem.
The U.S. is running so many secret programs, James R. Clapper Jr. told the newspaper, that "only one entity in the entire universe" knows what they're all doing, and "that's God." Clapper, in case you don't recognize the name, is not some disgruntled midlevel bureaucrat: He's President Obama's nominee to be director of national intelligence, the man who's now supposed to bring the intelligence leviathan under control.
None of this should come as a surprise. After the 9/11 attacks, which were possible partly because of intelligence failures, Congress and the George W. Bush administration threw money at almost anything that might prevent a recurrence. That was understandable.
But as a result, government agencies ballooned, entrepreneurial contractors found ways to make money, and waste and inefficiency bloomed like algae. That was predictable.
Now, almost a decade later, the Obama administration has inherited a bloated intelligence apparatus that wastes money and, more important, hasn't fixed all the weaknesses that made 9/11 possible.
All those agencies and all that money didn't stop a Nigerian student from trying to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit last Christmas. The plot was foiled not by a high-tech intelligence agency but by an observant Northwest Airlines passenger.
One reason the Christmas bomber almost succeeded was that intelligence agencies still aren't sharing information seamlessly. "It continues to be a problem," Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. "It's better than it was before 9/11, but it needs improvement."
What can be done to fix these problems?
There's a rough bipartisan consensus on at least one solution: Give Clapper, if confirmed as director of national intelligence, more authority.
His job, known in Washington as "DNI," was invented after 9/11 to oversee and coordinate the 16 major intelligence agencies, which include the Department of Defense, the CIA and the FBI, as well as more obscure outfits such as the Energy Department's intelligence office (which guards nuclear weapons secrets). But the agencies under the umbrella have jealously guarded their own powers, especially on budget and personnel. If that continues, Clapper won't be the most powerful person in the intelligence community; he'll be No. 4, behind Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and Obama's chief advisor on terrorism, John O. Brennan.
More authority for the DNI is only half the solution. The other half, which may seem counterintuitive during wartime, is to cut the intelligence budget.
When money is virtually unlimited, there's no real reward for finding efficiencies and no real incentive for agencies to coordinate their efforts.
But cutting the intelligence budget is a hard decision for our political system to make. A liberal Democratic president can't propose spending less money in the war on terrorism without being lambasted as a peacenik. A conservative Republican can't propose cutting intelligence without risking the ire of his own colleagues — if only because they want to retain their ability to lambaste the president as a peacenik.
So who will bell the intelligence-budget cat?
In fact, a few brave souls have taken cautious steps in that direction.
Panetta, a former budget director, has ordered the CIA to draw up a five-year plan that would freeze funding at the current level, but not actually trim it.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, signaled this week that she doesn't find budget cuts unthinkable. "In fact, the budget may actually end up being decreased in coming years," she said in a committee hearing.
And Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry of Texas, a GOP member of the House Intelligence Committee, said his party is willing to look at savings too. "It's time to be paring back some of the redundancies and the duplication," he said.
But he noted the political risks any member of Congress would take by going too far in demanding intelligence cuts.
"It's got to be bipartisan, or somebody's going to be left hanging out there when something happens," he said, referring to the fear of another terrorist attack. "And something is going to happen."
Are we smart enough to cut the intelligence budget in time of war? Money spent on duplicative and ineffective programs doesn't help protect us against terrorists; quite the contrary. At some point, even a nation threatened by Al Qaeda has to live within its means.