A Domestic Counterterrorism Agency? It’s a Numbers Game
Members of Congress are asking if it is in the nation’s best interest to create a dedicated agency that would be responsible for ferreting out terrorists. This hypothetical agency would operate independently from the FBI, CIA, National Counterterrorism Center and the thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies that should be on the lookout for homegrown plots.
The Department of Homeland Security, at Congress’ behest, commissioned Rand to look at the pros and cons of creating such an agency. The result was a research brief, “Should the United States Establish a Dedicated Domestic Intelligence Agency for Counter-Terrorism?”
It’s all in the numbers, the report’s authors said.
Lawmakers reading the report will not find any straight-ahead pro and con arguments, though. And they had better understand the somewhat complicated discipline of risk analysis.
The cost of setting up such an agency would vary depending if it were truly a standalone organization or an “agency within and agency” like the FBI’s national security branch.
That must be measured against the reduction in the amount of risk a domestic counterintelligence agency would achieve.
Annual losses for the 9/11 attacks were estimated at $1 billion to $10 billion per year. If a new agency were to cost $500 million per year to operate, and the annual risk was assumed to be $1 billion, then for the nation to “break even” on the deal, it would have to reduce the nation’s risk of terrorism by 50 percent.
If the cost of an attack to the nation were in the $10 billion per year range then the new agency would only have to reduce the terrorism risk by 5 percent.
Rand calls this “break-even” analysis.
All this depends on whether the new organization could truly do better than the different agencies that are charged with protecting the homeland today. Simply restructuring existing organizations may have the same result, Rand pointed out.
The fact that Congress is asking the question perhaps points to the frustration members feel about the lack of progress these agencies are making in sharing information.
The report highlighted several ongoing problems including: a lack of coordination between the CIA and FBI; the collection of poor quality and unverified information; fragmented and conflicting analysis carried out by insufficiently trained staff; and the inability to move critical information “across the domestic intelligence enterprise.”
There are many “intangible costs” that this mathematical analysis cannot address, the report added. That includes the possible erosion of privacy and civil liberties that a domestic intelligence agency might cause.
“The intangible costs should also be considered in any decision on structuring a domestic intelligence agency,” the report said.