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The CIA's Bernie Madoff Problem

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

The world is a scary place. Every single day, terrorists plot to kill you and everyone you care about. But don’t believe me; believe the national security professionals who we pay large, large sums of money to keep us safe. From Fareed Zakaria's GPS 360 from a few years back:

Fareed Zakaria: It does sound so scary day after day. Most of it goes nowhere, amounts to nothing. Most of the threats don't materialize.

John Miller: It's not an accident. The idea is when you've got that type of collection, you've got that kind of indicators and warning, you're able to influence those events, either by stopping the threat, shutting it down, capturing the people, arresting them or otherwise making it not happen.

Or from David Remnick on The New Yorker’s political scene podcast:

“Well, on the other hand, since September 2001 we have not had a major terror attack. If you talk to anybody--honest people--who are...high up in the national security apparatus they will tell you that the briefings that they get, the chatter that they listen to, the things that are stifled quietly that we don’t always hear about, are frightening. And we want that to happen.”

Whenever a terror event happens--albeit rarely--somewhere in the world, former national security experts, paid by the networks, emerge to reiterate variations on the above theme. They tell you, ‘If only you read what I read, then you would be really fearful. And because we read about it, we can stop it, and we do, but we don’t tell you, but you should trust us we are doing this.”

I am calling this variation on last week’s post, “the Bernie Madoff problem”. In this case, the national security establishment wants us to believe that we owe it our safety. They say, “We keep you safe and stop all sorts of terrorism, but we can’t tell you any specifics. Just trust us.” The director of the NSA, to prove his agency’s efficacy, said that the program Edward Snowden had leaked had prevented 50 specific attacks. Those 50 attacks, however, later turned out to be wildly exaggerated (narrowed down to a handful at most), mostly overseas and not actually prevented by the NSA meta-data collection program.

Madoff asked his investors to trust him in a very similar way; those investors then lost all their savings.

Westerners are safe. Fantastically safe. The safest people in the history of the world. And terrorism is incredibly rare. But we don’t owe the the intelligence community for this safety. We don’t have any evidence that those possible attacks that John Miller or David Remnick’s sources referenced were ever going to actually happen.

Take this story (by way of Graham Allison by way of Andrew Sullivan) about reports of a nuclear bomb threat on NYC. It never materialized, primarily because the intelligence underlying it just wasn’t very good. Phrased differently, it came from tortured suspects who lied. But it still qualifies as very scary chatter that intelligence analysts read day after day.

The most relevant point David Remnick and Fareed Zakaria both made is that the terrorist chatter goes nowhere. It goes nowhere without any CIA involvement or influence, which national security types usually won’t tell you. You may ask, what about our elected officials who provide oversight? Surely they could see through this.

They could, if they had access. When it comes to intelligence, only eight--8--members of Congress have oversight to all intelligence activities. Eight in a body of over 500 people are trusted with “overseeing” our entire intelligence apparatus. By the way, hardly any Americans know this. The rest of the legislative committees on intelligence also have huge ties to intelligence contractors.

(We wrote the above paragraph before the NSA wiretapping revelation. If anything, the revelation underscores our point. Most of the politicians briefed on the program didn’t understand how the meta-data collection program actually worked. They had to rely on a handful of powerpoint slides, and nothing else. Then, Congress demanded a slew of briefings after the program was revealed.)

We spend more on intelligence than most other Western nations spend on their entire military. That spending means jobs, lobbying and influence. If the CIA had to prove its effectiveness--the way most conservatives demand other parts of the government do--it would have an awfully hard time doing so with numbers, facts and results.

But they do hear lots of scary chatter.