Edward Snowden’s leaks continue to dribble out, keeping the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in the news. First, China feigned surprise at U.S. espionage even though their cyber-espionage and hacking knows no parallel, and then European leaders huffed indignant, even though their own intelligence services do much the same thing. Most recently, Latin American leaders are outraged at revelations that the United States sought to intercept their communications.
For Americans, the scandal should not be how expansive NSA surveillance is overseas (warrantless surveillance on Americans is another issue), but rather why—if the NSA is as good as the hyped leaks suggest it is—U.S. intelligence has been so bad. Snowden’s leaks suggest that the NSA has penetrated communications so deeply as to be almost omniscient. While that conclusion is likely exaggerated, the degree of American foreknowledge of both allies’ and adversaries’ communications raise questions about why U.S. policymakers haven’t been able to capitalize on that information.
Alas, having an overwhelming information advantage does not translate into quality intelligence. Take the FBI: Years after 9/11, it still took weeks to translate intercepts from critical languages. Between 2006 and 2008, the FBI failed to review 31 percent of the electronic files it collected, nor did it review 25 percent—representing 1.2 million hours—of audio intercepts.
Intercepts can help those seeking to hunt, capture, or kill an individual target, but they seldom are more valuable than newspapers or public statements when it comes to an adversary’s policy. Nor does signals intelligence and other intercepts substitute completely for human intelligence, a capability which the United States seems to have let slide over the decades. Regardless, no amount of signals intelligence enabled the U.S. government to predict the Arab Spring, nor the Egyptian Army’s countercoup. The best intelligence analysts are often those who read the open-source press rather than those who are attracted to the top-level intelligence likes moths to a flame. Context matters. Newspapers and traditional political reporting often give more insight than those reading transcripts of phone calls or a subject’s emails.
Compartmentalization also matters. Despite the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, federal agencies are still just as bad as they were before about sharing information that could help avert tragedies or advance American interests. National security advisors today are more trusted political sounding boards than bureaucrats capable of coordinating the U.S. national-security apparatus.
Nor is flawless intelligence enough to advance U.S. interests absent a coherent U.S. grand strategy. For a generation, if not more, the United States has been reacting to events rather than trying to determine them. Managing diplomatic relations is like cycling in place; it does not advance U.S. interests.
Damage control from Snowden’s leaks will consume years, if not decades, but it is also long past time for U.S. officials to consider why, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been so unsuccessful in both defining and fulfilling its goals.