Sequestration. The buzzword’s negative connotations are, by now, well known. Initiated in March, budget cuts have eliminated thousands of teaching and first responder jobs, and have reduced the U.S.’s military readiness and capacity for responding to international crises. Yet a far more dangerous result of the sequester looms: a severely hampered intelligence community.
Today, the United States faces a wide array of threats. Terrorism remains a significant concern. North Korea and Iran continue progress on their nuclear programs. Territorial disputes in Asia risk escalation. The conflict in Syria persists. Cyberterrorism is on the rise.
The present situation makes the Cold War an almost pleasant memory: at least then the enemy was both known and predictable. Many of the threats the U.S. now encounters are neither.
Despite awareness of the challenges that await, the Obama Administration has elected to reduce American intelligence capabilities. At the precise time when circumstances demand more funding, the intelligence budget has been decreased by over $4.3 billion (approximately 16%). These cuts are in addition to roughly $9 billion in cuts that has been made since 2010.
The effects of sequestration on intelligence are numerous. Most obviously, more limited resources will negatively impact operational quantity and quality. Degraded operations not only reduce the potential to gain intelligence from a given operation, but also put American case officers at risk.
Financial constraints will also limit the amount of collection and analysis, particularly of SIGINT (signals intelligence) and IMINT (imagery intelligence). Agencies, like the National Geospatial Agency, will be forced to prioritize which satellite images they observe. Such prioritization leaves significant gaps.
Furthermore, counterintelligence (CI) capabilities will continue to be inadequate. The Edward Snowden leaks exposed weaknesses that need to be addressed by better training (i.e. what to look for) and more resources. Neither of these is possible without funding.
Additionally, government agencies will find recruiting increasingly difficult. With fewer public sector jobs available, the best analysts, officers, and support personnel will pursue employment in the increasing private sector job market.
Arguably the most damaging effect is the risk of the U.S. losing its intelligence advantage. While the tradecraft of our officers is first rate, the primary reason for American intelligence preeminence is our superior technology. Private contractors, like Lockheed Martin, will not have the same flexibility and ability to innovate with a dwindling budget for research and development. Technological process will be slowed dramatically, if it is not stopped altogether. Meanwhile, the intelligence agencies of other countries – especially China– could reduce the gap in capabilities.
The outlook is ominous. On the surface, it may appear as if sequestration has not hurt the intelligence community. Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that the Obama Administration and Congress will not realize the true implications of the cuts until calamity strikes.