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intelligence usa

The United States' intelligence community is one of the most widespread and articulated in the world. In popular culture, everyone immediately thinks of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), when there are several other organizations charged with collecting vital information to achieve the key strategic goal of national security. The CIA is different because it is the sole "independent" agency, meaning it only answers to the President of the United States and not to a government body. Several people mistake the Secret Service for a spying agency, when it is charged with the physical protection of the President during his trips. Let us look in detail to how the U.S. informative system is structured.

The commander in-chief

The President of the United States is at the political and strategic head of the intelligence. He is advised and assisted by political bodies (the House and Senate Intelligence Commissions who have oversight powers) and by a Director of National Intelligence (DNI), currently James Clapper. The President assigns the post of DNI, whose role is to coordinate the presidential orders to the intelligence community. The post of DNI was introduced in 2004 when the issue of the fight on terrorism and the role of the intelligence became one of the country's priorities. Before then, it was the chief of the CIA that fulfilled this task. Clapper is one of the President's top advisers when it comes to national security. He presides over the elaboration of the National Intelligence Program and oversees its application. The DNI also defines the informative targets to achieve, the way of obtaining them and then provides the information to those entitled to receive them. The DNI obviously doesn't have any authority within the single intelligence agencies, whose management is left to their respective directors.

The National Security Council is another advisory body to the President when it comes to national security and therefore intelligence gathering. The U.S. President presides over this consultative organism where the most important decisions affecting the nation's security are taken. Those participating in its sessions are among the most influential officials in the country including: the Vice President, the Secretaries of State, Defense, Energy, of the Treasury and the Chiefs of the armed forces and, of course, the DNI. Other members can also be added to the discussions depending on the topic. Within the Council, the intelligence agencies are not preeminent, but contribute to the President's decision-making.

There are also other bodies when it comes to intelligence abroad, such as the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, who's been recently renamed Intelligence Advisory Board meaning its scope has been widened to include all intelligence activities. The President appoints its members and they include not only professionals, but also political advisors. The Board does not evaluate the technical or operational aspects of intelligence, but its political implications. Following the creation of the DNI, the Board has lots several of its original functions, but was not dissolved.

Then come the intelligence agencies properly said.


The CIA and its sisters

The CIA is the most important U.S. intelligence agency with 100 thousand employees, 20 thousand of whom are scattered on the ground all over the globe. Its annual budget surpasses 50 billion dollars. As stated above, it is the only independent intelligence agency answering only to the President of the United States (or through the DNI). Since January 2013, its director is John Brennan, who took over Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned following a sex scandal and the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Brennan is in favor of "kill lists" and drone strikes, he is man of action with ties to former CIA director George Tenet (he was his chief of cabinet) who played a key role following 911 and during George W. Bush's campaign of disinformation on Iraqi WMDs. Brennan is also in favor of enhanced interrogation techniques, illegal practices such as waterboarding. He spent over 25 years working for The Firm before moving to the White House as an anti-terrorism consultant. Under John Brennan the CIA has become an agency strongly dedicated to dirty operations, and it is not a coincidence that among his first appointments was a new chief of clandestine operations, a former marine whose name has been kept secret.

Besides from the CIA, there are several other intelligence agencies who report to their respective government bodies.

The Department of Energy has an Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, dedicated to offensive (espionage) and defensive (counter-espionage) activities in the energy sector with regard to technology, copyright and some aspects of cyber warfare.

The Department of Treasury has, since 2004, both an Office of Intelligence and Analysis and an Office for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, operating offensively and defensively in the financial and banking sectors. In such sectors its competences overlap with those of the CIA.

The U.S. Department of State has its own Bureau of Intelligence and Research, whose role is to support diplomatic activity. It was the Department of State that asked the NSA to tap the phone calls of foreign diplomats, chiefs of State and prime ministers.

The Department of Justice can rely on two operative branches:

- the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) fights its war on drugs and, since 2006, has joined the ranks of the intelligence community with an Office of Intelligence and National Security. The Office has both domestic and foreign bases.

- the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is tasked with counter-espionage and was the one that unmasked the CIA director's extra-marital affair.

The Department of Homeland Security also runs an Office of Intelligence and Analysis and can utilize the Coast Guard's intelligence branch, a member of the intelligence community since december 2001.

Lastly, but probably one of the most relevant ones, is the Department of Defense with its DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), in charge of military intelligence through both its military attachés abroad and the intelligence units within each of the armed force (the Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency; the Army's, Navy's and Marine's respective G-2s and other collateral units: the Office for Special Investigations and the now famous National Crime Investigation Service).

We had to add to these the now well-known National Security Agency (NSA), in charge of interception of communications around the world and of encryption and decryption activities, the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency for satellite images, terrestrial mapping and espionage, and the National Reconnaissance Office, also in charge of satellite images.


The problem of abundance

If you count them, there are at least 16 different organizations that, in one way or the other, carry out intelligence activities. A lot, possibly too many. Overlapping competences, probable waste of resources. Even though it may sound like a paradox, the biggest problem affecting U.S. intelligence is not only the proliferation of agencies, their lack of coordination and their spirit of competition regardless of the DNI's efforts. The true issue is the mass of information landing on the analysts' tables. We are talking SIGINT (interceptions), IMINT (satellite images), ELINT (electronic interceptions from the internet, computers etc.), HUMINT (classical spying) and OSINT (open source information from the press etc.). The problem of abundance makes analysis difficult and synthesis even more, with each report being different depending on the Department who is going to read it, hindering true informational goals. Can you possibly think about collecting millions of communications every day, filter them to obtain news that then turn them into valuable pieces of information? This is the first major problem the U.S. are facing.

The second one is the excessive recourse to technological intelligence. The United States, who have always played a lead role in this sector, thought at one point that technology could replace classic human spying. And this has caused great harm. Information coming from human contacts and from people working on the ground, has a different value is compared to the same information obtained with the aid of technology. The first information has a context, is colored with meanings, renders feelings and opinions visible. The same cannot be said for technological information, totally out of context and aseptic. The U.S. have decided to u-turn on their choice, even though the Datagate scandal confirms they are still collecting billions of bytes of technological information.

The United States have global strategic interests, and they are not only related to anti-terrorism, but span to a wider variety of subjects they need intelligence on. They need financial, industrial, military technology, foreign policy information and so on. The ultimate aim is the political, economic and military rule over the rest of the world. And a lot of interests also bring along a lot of enemies.

Another factor the critics of the Datagate scandal haven't fully metabolized is that intelligence agencies hardly ever pose themselves the question whether a certain initiative is ethical or lawful. They do what they have to do, to know what they need to know. And when it comes to national security, there are no friends or foes, but only information needs. To this effect, the United States are not any different from what other countries do, with the exception that U.S. intelligence branches out everywhere in the world and can afford to spy on its enemies and also on its friends. The majority of the rest of the planet's intelligence agencies work on a regional basis or on the basis of historical ties such as former colonies. The fact that the U.S. has the technology, the resources and the means that others don't have makes their intelligence gathering more intrusive, capable and effective. And, therefore, more scary.