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Wasteful Spy Spending

by David Corn

U.S. taxpayers subsidized a Russian intelligence operation
The war against government is raging. George W. Bush's anti-tax crusade has been embraced by conservatives who see his super-sized, relieve-the-rich tax cut as a way to squeeze funding for government.

This gang has been bleating, as they did in the heady Reagan years, about the dangers of Big Government and decrying useless government programs that waste taxpayer dollars. They ignore the fact that many popular government services -- the food inspection duties of the Food and Drug Administration, the Head Start preschool program -- are woefully underfunded, and they show no concern for the prospect that the Bush tax plan could lead to deficit spending, for such a development would make it even easier for conservatives to argue for cut-backs in government.

The anti-government crowd likes to toss out examples of silly federal spending. These days you hear its leaders huffing about subsidies for shrimp-farming in Arizona. Granted, there's plenty of dumb government spending, including corporate welfare. But why do the shrink-government advocates of the right not get riled over the ineffective or inefficient uses of money within the national security establishment? They rarely question Pentagon spending -- the largest portion of the discretionary budget. And in recent weeks, there has been evidence that the "intelligence community" -- as it members like to call it -- has poured great amounts of money down a rathole.

Consider the case of Robert Hanssen, the senior FBI officer accused of being a master-mole for the Russians for fifteen years. On the day of his arrest, FBI chief Louis Freeh cited Hanssen's apprehension as a "counterintelligence coup." Freeh was gazing at a large mound of manure dropped on his desk and praising the cow who had produced it.

More accurately, he should have cited Hanssen's arrest as the end of a counterintelligence disaster of unprecedented proportion. Days later, the news leaked that Hanssen -- in addition to providing the names of U.S. agents in Russia to his handlers -- had told Moscow about a tunnel that U.S. intelligence had constructed underneath the Soviet embassy in Washington to eavesdrop on the Russians. That is, one man compromised an operation that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It gets worse: the Russians, tipped off by Hanssen, were able to feed disinformation to U.S. intelligence via the tunnel. Which means U.S. taxpayers subsidized a Russian intelligence operation.

The CIA was clueless about all the major events of the Gorbachev era
The FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency had not figured on a spy in their midst when they mounted the tunnel operation. But when such an expensive project can be so thoroughly undone by a single individual, there's something wrong with the overall cost-risk calculation. (In the 1950s, the CIA spent a tremendous amount of money to build a tunnel below a Soviet communications center in East Berlin, and that operation was betrayed from the start by a British intelligence officer working for the Soviets.)

Moreover, in the days after Hanssen's arrest, several intelligence officials noted that it had only been a matter of time before a mole like Hanssen emerged. (He is, remember, unconvicted so far.) As one Washington Post story reported, "Hanssen proved what counterintelligence experts at the FBI and CIA have long known and feared: that a trusted agent working for one side can spy for the other as long as he is smart, careful and not too greedy." Robert Gates, aŹ former CIA director, noted, "a careful spy who knows all of the tricks of the counterintelligence world can be very difficult to identify....There will always be a tiny number who betray the trust....There will always be moles."

Well, if that's the case, why bother with elaborate and expensive operations so prone to compromise? And where's the outrage over the tunnel foul-up? Has it caused the anti-government partisans to call for a review of how the spies use federal funds?

For decades, the national security establishment has often escaped hard questions. What gives the NSA the right to intercept private communications around the world? What responsibility does the CIA bear for partnering up with murderous and human-rights-abusing thugs overseas and emboldening them? And, most importantly, what has been the return for all the billions of dollars in taxpayer investment in intelligence operations?

The intelligence budget is classified (for no good reason and arguably unconstitutionally), and the triumphs, if there are any, are kept from the public as well -- which permits intelligence agency champions to get away with saying, "if you only knew...." The annual intelligence budget in recent years, according to leaks, has been in the $30 billion range.

But the spies are not beyond judgment. A recent conference at Princeton, where the CIA released 19,160 pages of Cold War intelligence documents, indicated that the intelligence community in the 1980s screwed up bigtime.

Participants revealed that CIA analysts who took Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms seriously were gagged by their superiors. Such views were out of step with the hardline anti-Communism of the Reagan Administration. And the documents show that the CIA was clueless about all the major events of the Gorbachev era. Even as Gorbachev was unilaterally cutting the size of the Soviet army and removing troops from Eastern Europe, the CIA was maintaining that his "broad strategy is in the Leninist tradition" and aimed at "weakening" the United States. And as the Soviet Union was withdrawing its naval forces from Vietnam, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea, and ceasing much of its military activities in the Third World, a CIA analysis claimed Moscow intended "to expand its role as a global actor."

As former CIA analyst Mel Goodman has written, by missing the boat on Gorbachev, the intelligence community cost the United States in higher-than-necessary military spending and delayed arms control agreements. What's sad is that when the CIA did occasionally have a bead on developments in the Soviet Union -- such as when its analysts in the mid-1980s concluded that the Soviet Union, due to its own economic troubles, could not pay for a large arms buildup -- its insights were cut out of National Intelligence Estimates, the key sum-it-all-up documents of the intelligence services. The national security bureaucracy could not handle perspectives that challenged the mythology of the Big, Bad Bear.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Douglas MacEachin, who headed the CIA's office of Soviet analysis at the time, said that his crew "gave up on the [National Intelligence] Estimates after '86 or '87" because it was too tough to get realistic assessments into them. How's that for government that does not work?

How much does the spy vs. spy stuff matter?
So the CIA blew its biggest mission in the 1980s. And in that decade, by its own (though late) admission, it worked with suspected drug dealers in Central America while secretly assisting the Nicaraguan contras in their war against the leftist Sandinistas. Documents released last year show that the CIA had maintained a paid relationship with the Chilean intelligence chief who in 1976 dispatched agents to Washington to assassinate former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his American colleague Ronni Moffitt. (To spell it out: U.S. taxpayer dollars went to a foreigner who plotted the murder of an American.) The CIA's operations in the Soviet Union were largely undermined by double-agent Aldrich Ames. The FBI tunnel operation was rendered moot by one of its own. And this is a short list of misdeeds and mistakes.

Yet there's little payback. Budgets are not slashed. Top-down reviews that question the fundamentals of intelligence activities are not ordered. In fact, Representative Bob Barr, a former CIA officer, is even pushing a bill that would allow U.S. intelligence to plot the murder of foreign leaders.

And the biggest question goes unasked: how much does the spy-versus-spy stuff matter? As Russian political commentator Andrei Pointkovsky said, "Judging by this [Hanssen] case and [the case of] Ames...our intelligence completely outplayed the U.S. intelligence. Nonetheless, the United States is succeeding and Russia is not. So these intelligence games are not so essential."

That may be the national security establishment's' biggest secret. And its a secret that the cut-government partisans of the right are not interested in penetrating. Wouldn't you rather see taxpayer dollars misspent on shrimp tanks in the desert than on murder plots, biased analysis, and cloak-and-dagger tomfoolery?

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Albion Monitor March 26, 2001 (

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