Chronic underfunding of US HUMINT plays role in intelligence failures

By Clifford Beal,Editor JDW
Additional Reporting by
Andrew Koch, JDW Bureau Chief, Washington, DC

In the aftermath of the carnage in New York and Washington, DC, hundreds of questions will be asked as to how such an audacious and co-ordinated attack could have happened.

This latest act of terrorism, although the most horrific to date, is not the first time that the US government has been caught unaware. Indeed, the subject of "asymmetric warfare" ­ the use of terrorist methods to strike at weaknesses in the societies of western countries -- has been a significant worry for strategic planners in the US for most of the 1990s.

One possible contributing factor to this failure of the intelligence and security system could be the lack of resources the US has devoted to human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities throughout the past decade. While national technical means continued to receive high levels of funding for surveillance satellites, signals intelligence flights, and other eavesdropping technologies, human-based intelligence capabilities have withered. Areas such as analysis, linguist skills, cultivation of agent networks, and "tradecraft" were all of paramount importance during the Cold War, particularly before the advent of space-based intelligence assets, but have suffered a lack of resources of late. This shortfall has been exacerbated by the growing demand that increased emphasis on technical intelligence has placed on the people who must process the vast amounts of resulting data and prioritise it.

Key US leadership, in fact, has been calling for a re-assessment of Washington's intelligence investment priorities. Senator Bob Graham, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said 11 September that the US needs to focus greater attention on increasing its HUMINT capabilities, while investing to assure maintaining a technological edge in intelligence matters. Moreover, Senator Graham noted, the US intelligence community must work to close the gap between the amount of raw intelligence it can gather and the quantity it can process, analyse, and disseminate. The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002, passed by Sen. Graham's committee earlier this month, calls for greater investments in HUMINT, re-capitalisation of the National Security Agency (NSA), improving intelligence analysis and dissemination, and improving intelligence science and technology. Though the exact figure is classified, the overall US intelligence budget for FY02 is estimated at about $30 billion.

US intelligence about terrorist activities, particularly in the Middle East, has experienced shortfalls for many years. In 1983, two suicide bombers eliminated the US military presence in Lebanon. In August 1998, the destruction of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania also took the US intelligence community by surprise. In August 2000, the USS Cole was taken out of action by terrorist action in Yemen.

Indeed even US technical means have been "fooled" by those determined to avoid them. India’s nuclear detonations in June 1998 were timed to escape detection by US surveillance satellites through a sophisticated deception programme. The timing of India’s arrival as a new nuclear power caught the intelligence community by surprise.

While shortages in manpower in the intelligence community have been well documented, particularly in several key HUMINT areas, the technically-orientated National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) has continued to receive funding for high-priced systems--most recently the Future Imagery Architecture. To provide advanced warning against, and to help avoid, the kinds of attacks that happened in New York, a long-needed overhaul of US intelligence capabilities may be forthcoming.




  • Chronic underfunding of US HUMINT plays role in intelligence failures

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