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Threats Rise But Intel Spending Going Down

Walter Russell Mead

As the world grows more dangerous, we’re asking our intelligence community to do more and more with less and less. Defense One reports:

Since a peak funding level of $80.1 billion in 2010, the 17 agencies within the intelligence community have been forced to operate with declining dollars, down to some $66 billion in fiscal 2015.

According to a new report from market researcher Deltek, the IC’s overall budget may be on the uptick, but its spending on information technology won’t be.

That means the IC will have to meet growing threats on land and in cyberspace – particularly from China and Russia, the report notes – without the added benefit of extra tech spending.

Because the IC does not publish a public line-item budget for its IT expenditures, much of the data in Deltek’s report are based on estimates from entities like the Federal Procurement Data System.

Using this data and other sources, Deltek estimated there was about $9.8 billion in “total addressable” intelligence tech spending in fiscal 2015. The report suggests IT spending will essentially stagnate through 2020, with estimated IT spending at $9.5 billion by then — a 0.4 percent decrease from today’s levels.

Intelligence spending is a complicated issue: there is lots of waste and inefficiency in a vast and secretive bureaucracy, Congressional and press scrutiny is of limited use even with bureaucracies subject to open investigation, and classification makes oversight harder and allows problems to fester. So, the operating assumption needs to be that the intel community’s spending is probably at least as dysfunctional as what one can see in more visible areas of government.

But while getting rid of the famous “waste, mismanagement and fraud” costs are important, the fact remains that the threats to the United States and our allies are growing by every measure: jihadis are far more active and better organized than in 2010 (when intel budgets began to be curtailed), and rival powers like Russia and China are steadily increasing their capabilities and confirming their intention to challenge U.S. power. It’s also the case that the situation in the Middle East is becoming more complicated and more dangerous, and its impact—even beyond the actions of jihadi groups—on American interests is growing.

So we need more and better intel, not less. And getting good intel while observing various restrictions on privacy and the sensitivity of allies is more expensive than just going out there and taking a brute force approach to collection.

President Obama has recently begun to respond to the deteriorating situation of American security on his watch by reversing earlier cuts to the Pentagon budget. One of the consequences of diplomatic failure and strategic error is that the world becomes more dangerous and therefore defense becomes more expensive. The intel budgets need to be seen as part of this picture.

The world is uglier than it was in 2009, the bad guys are better armed, better organized and more aggressive than they used to be. In much of the world our alliances aren’t as strong and effective as they used to be, and the bad guys are taking advantage of that. Unfortunately, that means we’ve got to spend more money preparing against more contingencies, and devote more resources to understanding and coping with emerging threats.

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