War On The Cheap

One Year After Benghazi Defense Cuts Won’t Help Bring Justice

Using intelligence to stop attacks and hunt terrorists is never easy but as Gail Harris, a 28 year Naval intelligence officer explains, sequestration has made it even harder.

09.14.13 8:45 AM ET

With the country’s attention focused this past week on the controversy over Syria and memorials for the attacks of September 11, 2001, another tragedy has been overlooked. This September 11 was also the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attack by Islamist terrorists that resulted in the deaths of 4 U.S. citizens to include our Ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens. The failure to predict and prevent the Benghazi attack underlines some basic truths about the limits of intelligence and military operations, and how an already stressed system is being threatened by sequestration even as the same politicians who approved the budget slashing measures demand more results.  

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Obama administration faced a slew of harsh criticisms. The administration was faulted for the lack of adequate security at the embassy and other U.S. facilities in Libya, the slow military response to the attack, the intelligence community’s failure to predict the attack, and  the flawed analysis in its aftermath. A year has passed and despite a sealed indictment against the suspected lkillers and an oath by the president to bring them to justice, no one has so far been arrested or tried. In fact, one suspect in the attack, Ahmed Khattala, isn’t even making an attempt hide as he openly walks the streets in Libya and appears publicly to grant interviews.

Much has been written on these various controversies, but there has been little informed opinion about the underlying issues: our military’s capability to respond to unexpected crises, the challenges the intelligence community faces providing tactical warning and how all of this is being impacted by the massive budget cuts imposed by sequestration. As a 28 year Naval intelligence officer with experience at the strategic level, I have a have few reflections and ideas that I’d like to offer.

Leon Panetta discussed these issues in one of his last appearances before Congress as Secretary of Defense stating:

“We are focused on enhancing intelligence collection and ensuring that our forces throughout the region are prepared to respond to crisis if necessary...”

The military has done what it can to address the shortfalls discussed by Panetta and now has both Marine and Army quick reaction forces tasked with responding to crises in Northern Africa.  500 Marines and six Osprey aircraft will operate out of Spain and the Army will have a small company size force operating out of Djibouti. But you don’t have to be a defense specialist to understand that the ongoing political gridlock is a major obstacle to our military readiness.  During his State of the Union address, President Obama stated:

“As long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world. We will invest in new capabilities, even as we reduce waste and wartime spending.”

What he didn’t say was how he would do this in the midst of the continuing budget crisis, which is already gutting military readiness.

On the one hand some members of Congress have criticized the military and intelligence response to Benghazi while, at the same time, refusing to solve the sequestration problem and pretending that the two are not related. This situation has been particularly damaging to the military’s ability to do maintenance and training that it relies on in order to surge forces in reaction to a crisis.  General Raymond Odierno, the Army’s Chief of Staff, has said that the Army cut back on 80% of its training and cancelled depot maintenance for the 3rd and 4th quarter of this year.  He warned:  “The cost of these actions is clear — we are sacrificing readiness to achieve reductions inside the short period of this fiscal year. And readiness cannot be bought back — not quickly and not cheaply.”  The end result, as attested by many senior military leaders, is that the military might not be able to respond effectively to the next crisis.

In an 11 September 2013 talk, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated:

"Last night the President laid out the reasons we should take action in Syria. Yet it is critical to note that today no one is questioning our ability to take action. Our naval presence in the region provided that ability the day of the regime's chemical weapons attack. It provided it the day before the attack, and continues to provide it today.”

If sequestration continues for its statutory ten-year duration, until 2022, or even for a relatively small part of that time, our naval presence and thus our ability to deliver immediate and adaptable options will almost certainly be compromised. It is impossible to know what tests await our country over the next decade; the only thing certain is that we can’t predict them all and that it’s vital to preserve the depth and flexibility of our systems for detecting and responding to emerging problems and hot spots.

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I’ve never heard any senior military leader say we should not cut the defense budget, all they’re asking is that it be done in a deliberate and targeted way that doesn’t compromise key functions that affect our military’s readiness and our nation’s security.  The problem is that under the sequestration process the military doesn’t have flexibility in deciding what programs and areas to cut.

Generating accurate and timely intelligence warnings is a challenging and complex task even in the best conditions and with optimal funding. Creating actionable intelligence and predicting threats requires sifting through and analyzing huge amounts of data that come through multiple streams including imagery, signals intelligence and human reporting. The staffing and technology required to do this well is never cheap but without it we risk missing the signs of a growing threat and losing the chance to act on possible attacks before it’s too late.

Exact figures are difficult to come by because of classification issues but in a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, a former senior intelligence official wrote that every 24 hours over one billion pieces of information are collected.  During a 2007 unclassified conference on analytic transformation, Dr. Michael Wertheimer, the Chief Technology Officer at the time for the Director of National Intelligence stated:

“Of the data we’re collecting, that is genuinely intel, not fluff – it’s already been filtered and selected – we’re only analyzing about one ten-millionth of the data we’re collected today; one ten-millionth.” 

Politicians, decision makers and the American people still need a better understanding of what intelligence can and cannot do for protecting our nation and targeting our enemies, and how those capabilities are impacted by the ongoing sequestration. As the debate over the Syrian chemical weapons show, intelligence analysis will seldom give you a case that can stand up in a court of law. Nor, as Benghazi demonstrated, can intelligence always predict exactly where our enemies will strike or for what reason.

In spite of these limitations, the ability of the intelligence community to look through massive amounts of data and fill in the pieces of an ever-changing puzzle is remarkable and critical to protecting our safety and national interests. Allowing sequestration to apply a falling axe to defense cuts where a carefully wielded scalpel is needed, will make a difficult job even harder and could endanger us all.