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Intelligence Confronts Catastrophic Cuts in Doomsday Budget Scenario

November 17, 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The community could mitigate smaller reductions with a new approach by veteran officials.

The U.S. intelligence community faces the possibility of devastating budget cuts if the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction does not reach an agreement by November 23, 2011. The community is not ready for the massive reductions that would be imposed if that congressional committee fails to reach agreement, says a senior defense official.

Currently, the U.S. Defense Department is preparing for $489 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. The intelligence community is making plans to do its part in that effort. “The cuts [in intelligence] we are looking at now, we’re working through that $489 billion,” the official states. “If $600 billion [in additional cuts]—or even a portion of it—comes our way, that’s huge. We’re not postured for that,” the official adds.

Even for the smaller amount, the meat-cleaver approach to budget cuts will not be used as it was in the post-Cold War era. Instead, the leadership of the U.S. intelligence community will focus on capabilities rather than on spending numbers when it makes funding cuts. This approach contrasts with the 1990s post-Cold War approach of making major reductions across the board in response to what was perceived as a reduced threat to national security.

After the end of the Cold War, the defense intelligence community underwent substantial cuts as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet threat. Consequently, many capabilities were lost by the time the September 11, 2001, Al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. homeland officially began the War on Terrorism. The community needed to ramp up for the new threat to the homeland, and those major cuts hindered attempts to rebuild a fully functioning global intelligence network. Even though many aspects of the new mission required different approaches to intelligence collection, processing and dissemination, the community still had to rebuild with a somewhat hollow intelligence force.

The current intelligence community leadership is well-positioned to help mitigate most of the effects from budget cuts, the defense official says. In part, this is because some leaders took part in those 1990s cuts and will not repeat those mistakes. The director of national intelligence, Lt. Gen. James Clapper, USAF, freely admits that he hollowed the force when he was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency then. Gen. Clapper will not repeat those mistakes, the official offers.

Gen. Clapper has gone on the record as saying that he must preserve the analytic force, so major budget cuts must come from other areas. All sectors of the intelligence community “will share the pain” of budget cuts, but they will not share equally. Assessments will be made on the basis of capabilities, not numbers, the official says.

Both military intelligence and national intelligence will be treated more holistically. In the past, decisions in each discipline were made without as much consideration for how the other community would be affected. Now, the two are being integrated far better to their mutual benefit. That approach also will help ensure that their capabilities are complementary.

The defense official notes that the intelligence community is faced with two missions. One is counterterrorism, and many of the assets built over the past 10 years serve that need. But the community also must undertake area-of-denial missions in which it must access information from places—such as nation-states—that do not want their information discovered. This role is more analogous to the old Cold War mission set, and it requires more high-end intelligence assets. So, the community must treat those two missions as bookends to maintain an effective intelligence infrastructure.