WASHINGTON – With America's top terror target eliminated, the nation's intelligence agencies fear they will look like a fat target for budget cuts. Their chief argument: Gutting intelligence budgets led to the shortfalls that allowed Usama bin Laden to carry out attacks in the first place.
Lawmakers say they are well aware that the terror war is not over but warn that cuts are coming.
Congress approved an intelligence budget of $80.1 billion in 2010, but lawmakers are keeping that roughly the same, slightly north of $80 billion for the next two years — and south of the White House's request, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified budget figures.
Those who lived through the purge of what is known as human intelligence — on-the-ground spies, informants and go-betweens — after the fall of the Soviet Union fear a rerun of the 1990s. Then, the spy world saw across-the-board cuts, agency by agency, on the theory that their main reason for being had ceased to be.
"There was very little effort to look across the community and say if one organization is cutting analysts deeply in one area, let's make sure another organization isn't doing the same," said former Pentagon intelligence official Joan Dempsey.
The last time the budget masters took a buzz saw through the intelligence agencies, the White House was blindsided by Al Qaeda's strike on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Dempsey said. She's among a wide spectrum of intelligence professionals warning against a repeat of such cuts, in a report released Tuesday by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
"After the victory against the Soviet Union, we cut deeply across our capabilities in Africa, because people said we were in Africa because of the Soviet Union," Dempsey said. That left the intelligence community practically blind during "an entire decade of unrest, and turmoil, in which U.S. troops had to intervene" in fragile states like Somalia, and Al Qaeda built in strength, she said.
The former chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., agrees. He remembers meeting resource-starved CIA officers in his first trips in 2001.
"They told me they had no capability," Hoekstra said, in a continent where the human intelligence needed to penetrate tribal and gang-supported unrest far outweighed the usefulness of the satellite and signals intelligence that was so popular at the time. "We let human intelligence die on the vine."
After Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, "we tried to hire quickly to make up for the damage," he said, "and sent a lot of people on dangerous assignments with not enough mentoring."
But Hoekstra also warned against cuts to satellite and signals intelligence investment, citing the lead time needed to develop and launch satellites to replace an aging fleet. New satellite systems are attractive to cut in the short term, because a single system often runs into the billions. But when the older satellites start failing, leaving gaps, the rush to replace them quickly can cost even more, he said.
"I had about $2 for every dollar (former CIA Director George) Tenet had when Al Qaeda struck on Sept. 11," said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009. Hayden oversaw one of the largest periods of expansion the intelligence agencies have ever seen.
"So the record shows it paid off, but everyone recognizes it would be hard to sustain," Hayden said.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told Congress in February that he'd be making cuts across the community, signaling that the post-Sept. 11 rate of growth had come to an end.
Several DNI officials were part of a task force that helped write the industry report released Tuesday.
Clapper was careful not to identify what areas he has been thinking of cutting, Dempsey said, for fear the power of his suggestion might drive congressional committees to beat him to it.
The intelligence budget has risen steadily since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the precise figures are classified. Clapper published the 2010 figure, at $80.1 billion, up from $75 billion the year before.
The current version of the 2011 intelligence authorization act does cut some of the personnel requests made by the CIA, but adds millions of dollars and thousands of civilian positions, including "critical counter-terrorism positions at the CIA and a significant increase to the National Counterterrorism Center," said a House intelligence committee member, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I.
Key programs like the CIA unit that hunted down bin Laden have been funded, but the lawmakers have started weeding out what they've decided are unnecessary duplications, said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the intelligence committee's minority chairman: "There is duplication of programs. There are some programs we can't afford, or that might have to be delayed for a few years."
Hayden said the cuts to the military make it all the more important to guard against cuts to intelligence, after Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that a budget-reduced U.S. military may no longer be able to fight a two-front war.
"If forces are going to be drawn down, then how you use those forces will be much more limited," Hayden said. "So strategic intelligence is all the more important."