Greeting the Golden Horde


I want to kick off the week by thanking Ta-Nehisi for the chance to spend some time above the comments section. I can't hope to match his passion, his prose, or his prodigious curiosity. What I'll try to do, instead, is draw the community that he has cultivated here into the sort of informed, engaged conversations that have become this blog's stock in trade.

One lesson I've taken from our host is the importance of blogging about things close to your own heart. It's a license to indulge my eclectic fascinations, and I fully intend to abuse it. If there's a common thread among the topics I hope to cover in the next week, it's my fascination with institutions - how they function, and why they often don't.

With that in mind, I'll kick off by linking to Dana Priest's and Bill Arkin's astonishing investigation of the growth of the National Security apparatus over the past decade. It's a massive piece, but I want to focus on just two of the many issues it raises. The first is its powerful reminder of everything that journalism can do right - and accordingly, the poignant warning it presents of what we may lose as the economic model that enables such work continues to collapse. It's difficult to imagine a newspaper not held by a family trust making this sort of investment. The need for this sort of work seems to be expanding just as the number of organizations capable of producing it is rapidly contracting, and that's worrisome.

The other thing that leaps out at me is what the investigation implies about bureaucracy. To function healthily, bureaucracies typically require adverse external pressures. Left to their own devices, their internal logic will dictate continual expansion, redundancy of function, and preservation of obsolete and inefficient components. Our present intelligence apparatus amounts to a large-scale social science experiment: What would a bureaucracy look like if it faced no effective outside review, no meaningful budgetary constraints, and did not even answer to any consolidated authority? It's not the sort of experiment that could have made it past an IRB, but it's been running for a decade, and the results are grimly fascinating. 

In an ideal world, the Post series would lead not only to a Pulitzer, but to mounting public pressure to substantially cut outlays - budgetary straits being one of the few proven means of forcing institutional change. But while everyone loves to hate waste, fraud and abuse, few politicians or bureaucrats want to cut our overall spending on intelligence. The one certainty in the counterterror world is that there will be more attempted attacks, and that afterwards, we'll turn out to have missed crucial cues. Cutting a program or a budget, however wasteful or redundant, risks the charge that parsimony left us vulnerable. Neither Democrats nor Republicans care to risk that. Until we decide, as a nation, not to surrender to our fears, I expect the promises of reform will eventually give way to an even larger, less efficient intelligence community.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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