U.S. intelligence agencies have wasted many billions of dollars by mismanaging secret, high-technology programs, the deputy chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence says.
“The American public would be outraged if they knew,” Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, told The Washington Times. “Billions and billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted.”
Mr. Bond said he was unable to provide details or exact figures because the programs are classified. “I wish I could, but I can’t,” he said, adding that “many billions of dollars” were wasted on “just one program” that had been canceled recently.
In 2009, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, then-director of national intelligence, revealed for the first time that U.S. spending on military and civilian intelligence programs totaled about $75 billion.
Past intelligence acquisitions that became public after spending for them had run out of control include spy-satellite programs, such as the National Reconnaissance Office’s Future Imagery Architecture, which is widely regarded as the most costly failure in U.S. intelligence, and computer technology, such as the National Security Agency’s Trailblazer, which officials publicly admitted in 2005 was several hundred million dollars over budget and several years behind schedule.
Mr. Bond said provisions in the new intelligence spending law signed by President Obama last week were designed to improve reporting to Congress about secret spending programs when costs start to rise. “We wanted to make sure that we’ve got a fail-safe in the law should some of these programs go wrong in the future,” he said.
The long-delayed Fiscal Year 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act contains language modeled on the 1982 Nunn-McCurdy defense spending bill, named for then-Sen. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, and then-Rep. Dave McCurdy, Oklahoma Democrat. A new provision states that the director of national intelligence (DNI) has to report to Congress within 45 days about any major programs experiencing “significant cost growth” — a rise of 15 percent or more from the original cost estimate.
If the costs rise by more than 25 percent — “critical cost growth” — the DNI has to cancel the program or explain to Congress why it is essential to national security, why there are no cheaper alternatives and why the program is more important than any others that might have to be cut to accommodate the growing costs.
The new provision was greeted with cautious optimism by those who track defense and intelligence spending.
“It’s a good way of systematically drawing the attention of lawmakers” to problematic programs, said John Pike of the Virginia-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said lawmakers “needed to automate the process” in intelligence spending because “alarms [about spending growth] that would ring in other contexts don’t operate” in the classified sphere.
Spending programs in other departments are subject to inspector-general review or Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits, he said. “There are all sorts of management practices that get shortchanged in the classified world.”
Mr. Bond said that, despite the classified nature of the programs, lawmakers “have the ability to get the information we need” to do oversight of them.
He called the staff on the committee “great spies” who were able to dig out details of flawed programs.
“We find out a lot of stuff they don’t want us to know,” he said.
Mr. Aftergood called that “a somewhat rosy picture of the oversight process.”
“There is lots of information they can get if they ask for it,” he said, “But it is a question of knowing what to ask.”
In defense spending, Nunn-McCurdy has been “very effective in raising a flag when there’s a problem” with rising costs, said Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations with the Project on Government Oversight, a spending watchdog.
“At the end of the day, it still comes down to decision-makers in the executive or Congress to actually do something,” he added.
Mr. Bond said the military has “figured out ways to get around” Nunn-McCurdy, and he predicted intelligence officials would seek to do the same. “Congress is going to have to get on them,” he said.
“It’s a good first step,” he said of the new intelligence spending provisions, “but it’s not a silver bullet.”
Mr. Pike said that many intelligence programs, which seek to leverage the latest technology, were “high risk by definition. If it’s not high risk, they’re not trying hard enough.”
Another provision in the intelligence law also aimed at improving oversight of intelligence spending. Some lawmakers had pushed for intelligence agencies to be subject to GAO auditing.
“That was directly responsive to these problems” of programs that had gone billions over budget and were years behind schedule, Mr. Aftergood said. Lawmakers “wanted to see closer investigation of contract performance.”
But Mr. Obama threatened to veto a bill that contained such measures, and the final version only asks the DNI to define a role for GAO auditors in the intelligence community. “They left it to the DNI to decide,” Mr. Aftergood said.
Part of the problem, said Mr. Bond, is the “dysfunctional” way that oversight of U.S. intelligence was organized in the Congress. The intelligence committees in each chamber work year-round on oversight. But the purse-strings are controlled by the defense appropriations subcommittees — which have responsibility for all Pentagon spending and cannot devote sufficient time, energy or specialist knowledge to intelligence programs, he said.
“Regrettably, when we started raising the issues, it took us several years to convince the rest of Congress” that action was needed, Mr. Bond said, adding there was also “stiff resistance from the executive branch.”
“In the past, the administration has been reluctant to take instruction” from the intelligence committee about over-budget or behind-schedule programs, in part because appropriators generally funded the programs anyway, Mr. Bond said.