The American national security system is broken. Forged in the aftermath of World War II, the national security state was invented to prevent the kind of problems the United States suffered in the fight against Germany, Italy, and Japan, when it had to build a large military and intelligence complex essentially from scratch. Since the heady days of the Cold War, the country’s leadership has long assumed that “bigger is always better.”
Today, the defense budget is around $700 billion per year (which is larger than the next 10 countries combined—including China and Russia) and the intelligence community comprises 17 different agencies with over 800,000 employees (with an overall estimated 4 million people holding security clearances throughout the government).
Meanwhile, Uncle Sam has relied on an ever-growing influx of high-priced defense contractors since 9/11. In Fiscal Year 2016, for example, almost half of the Pentagon’s budget was spent on contracting firms (the Pentagon employs about 600,000 contractors, by the way).
Bigger is Not Always Better
Within the Defense Department, the number of tax dollars sloshing around is so large, and the department is so bloated, that Congress is capable of little if any meaningful oversight. And the congressional members who could do the oversight properly are often given oodles of campaign donations by contractors, so they won’t ask too many questions about what the Pentagon is doing with all of those big bucks.
The “bigger is always better” crowd in Washington has ensured that it will always get richer and more powerful. Yet, the one thing they are required to do—defend the country—they’re not doing very well anymore. They’ve all become too big to succeed. In an age of specialization; when smaller is usually better, the national security bureaucracy gets bigger and slower.
Just look at the intelligence community. One of the biggest hurdles for getting a job in the IC is getting through the security clearance process (this is made doubly difficult if one did not previously serve in the armed forces). Thus, those who do acquire security clearances are highly valued. And, the sheer size of the IC along with the opaque nature of the security clearance process means that the political preferences of those who seek those security clearances can be, and are, taken into account as they are issued. How many otherwise effective and competent people either have been denied clearances or have had their clearance revoked because they dared to support unpopular leaders, like President Trump?
Whether they seek promotion within the bureaucracy or desire to leave lower-paying government work and head over to the private sector, the security clearance gives those who possess it immense leverage for greater levels of influence and pay. This is at the heart of the current scandal surrounding President Trump’s correct decision to revoke the security clearance of hyperpartisan former CIA Director John Brennan.
Many in the government argue that former high-ranking officials must be allowed to keep their clearances because the government relies on the “talent” of such former officials for “consulting” purposes. But, if the IC relies more heavily on highly paid private consultants rather than on current employees, then those agencies (just as a practical matter) should shed large portions of their workforce and rely more on former employees.
A better solution would be to cultivate the younger talent within the ranks of those various agencies and shed some of the old, dead weight—such as Brennan. After all, the country is fighting new forms of warfare and new adversaries; constantly relying on the old minds—many of whom oversaw massive intelligence and strategic failures—is folly.
Remember, too, that Edward Snowden once had a security clearance. His social media profile indicated that he was an individual with deep ideological resentment toward his employer, the U.S. intelligence community, and was therefore a security risk. Yet he went on to do what he did with that clearance.
Fat and Slow Loses the Race
As for the contractors, scandals such as those surrounding Leonard Glenn Francis—“Fat” Leonard—the Malaysian defense contractor is proof-positive of how broken the country’s national security apparatus has become. In exchange for cash, prostitutes, and other unethical gifts, scores of U.S. Navy personnel supplied this foreign defense contractor (who wanted to be the sole supplier for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet when it operated in the Asia-Pacific) with classified intelligence, so that “Fat” Leonard could beat out his competition.
In doing so, Francis would overcharge the Navy, provide shoddy service, and then would blackmail the naval officers with whom he supplied a good time if they refused to help him or if they questioned his corrupt business practices.
Today, as the United States is threatened as never before, America’s national security bureaucracy—in its present form —is a great hindrance to securing the country. Revoking the security clearances of corrupt retirees, like Brennan, and pursuing fat-cat contractors who promise much while delivering little, is the only way that the country will be better-positioned to defend itself in the long-run.
Bigger is not always better and you don’t always get what you pay for. Increasing oversight and removing negative incentives is the only way to better our national defense (and save the taxpayers some money, too).
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