A Report Card for Homeland Security

Are our intelligence analysts really keeping us safer? Or are they wasting money and providing "Google-deep" information? A new amendment promises to find out.


While the U.S. faces severely constrained resources, the threat posed by violent non-state actors is unlikely to disappear soon. America is shackled by an economy that's in shambles and over $14 trillion in national debt; one of al Qaeda's recent adaptations has been to leverage this weakened state, executing smaller but more frequent attacks designed to drive up the costs of providing security, and thus grind down the U.S. economy. In this challenging environment, the agencies charged with safeguarding our national security will be forced to do more with less. An amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act of 2011 that Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) notified the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee of on Tuesday provides a laudable first step.

Co-sponsored by Senators Scott Brown (R.-Mass.) and Ron Johnson (R.-Wisc.), the amendment calls for the Government Accountability Office, within a year of enactment of the Act, to submit an unclassified report on DHS's analytic capabilities. The four major areas that the report would analyze are DHS's reliance on contractors for its intelligence analysis, whether DHS's analysts are developed with an adequate level of specialization, whether parts of DHS's intelligence analysis organization overlap or are duplicative, and the accuracy and usefulness of DHS's analytic products. All four of these areas are important, and worthy of the GAO's examination.

A key question about the massive expansion of the intelligence community that occurred after 9/11 is whether we are truly better off because of it. Is our raw intelligence better? Has our analysis improved? Is it having a significant operational impact? These subjects must be explored with diligence and humility in the age of austerity that we're entering.

All four questions that Sen. Coburn's amendment would have the GAO explore constitute important subjects. Contractors are increasingly looking like a permanent part of the national security apparatus. In February of last year, Senators Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, the chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, were "astounded" to learn that there were more contractors than civilian employees working for DHS.

One problem is that contractors are simply more expensive, on average, than are federal employees. A report submitted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted in 2007 that "the average annual cost of a U.S. government civilian employee is $126,500, while the average annual cost of a 'fully loaded' (including overhead) core contractor is $250,000." Thus, as of 2008, contractors comprised about 29 percent of the workforce in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's agencies, but they received pay equal to 49 percent of the agencies' personnel budgets. Understanding the role contractors play within DHS is a critical part of trimming its budget (though I'm skeptical that the problem can be satisfactorily addressed absent civil service reform).

The second question posed by Sen. Coburn's amendment, whether DHS's analysts are adequately specializing, is similarly important. There is currently a distinct lack of specialists within the U.S. intelligence community writ large, and the tendency to produce generalists can result in "Google-deep" conclusions that analysts with a bit more background and context would recognize as flawed.

Governmental analysts I've spoken with tell me that they see few professional incentives to develop into specialists. This can drive up costs when the intelligence community has to hire contractors as specialists, particularly if those doing the hiring have difficulty telling the difference between a good and a bad specialist. When this is the case, more outside experts are hired than are needed. Thus there is dead weight. Are professional incentives for specialization better within DHS than in other analytic shops, or can they be improved?

The third question that Sen. Coburn's amendment poses is whether parts of DHS's intelligence analysis organization overlap, or are redundant. One U.S. intelligence analyst told me that within the overall apparatus, there is "a massive amount of very general, duplicative work that could be streamlined just through proper coordination.

In addition to the inefficiencies associated with this situation, analytical shortcomings are produced--and Sen. Coburn's amendment also seeks to assess the overall usefulness of DHS's analytic products. In a culture of non-specialists, analysts may be dissuaded from drawing controversial conclusions. According to insiders, platitudes are often used in lieu of actual analysis when analysts lack the confidence and experience to take positions that some might regard as controversial. This can lead to errors.

It goes without saying that not all analysts fall into this trap. There are many astute intelligence analysts within government. But the current culture of intelligence analysis has often produced suboptimal work product, something that should give rise to questions about systemic fixes.

DHS's analytic corps is not the only part of the intelligence apparatus of which these questions should be asked, but it's necessary to start somewhere. Nor should reform of the intelligence community be undertaken lightly. But Sen. Coburn's amendment offers a solid first step toward obtaining the detailed knowledge of the intelligence apparatus necessary to move toward a more skilled corps of analysts with deeper knowledge of the areas they're studying. Ultimately, doing so won't just improve our intelligence, but will also allow us to adapt better to al Qaeda and other foes engaged in asymmetric warfare. It will save us money in the long run.