Counterterrorism 101: Navigating the Bureaucratic Maze

By Sandra I. Erwin

The massive federal bureaucracy that is involved in counterterrorism is so vast that no reliable figures exist to quantify its size and reach.
A year ago, the public got a glimpse of the staggering expansion of the U.S. government’s national-security apparatus in a Washington Post award-winning series titled, “Top Secret America.”
Now comes the “Yellow Pages” version, in the form of a 365-page tome that catalogues the government’s unclassified — and largely unknown to most Americans — mega counterterrorism bureaucracy.
Retired U.S. Ambassador Edward Marks and counterterrorism consultant Michael B. Kraft compiled what one expert described as an “essential roadmap for anyone who intends to seriously study American counterterrorism policy.”
Published in December, “U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What,” condenses in 20 chapters what dozens of federal agencies, legislative committees and state governments — that receive federal grants — do in the name of keeping America safe.
“Although I am familiar with the field of terrorism analysis as well as with the machinery of government, I admit to being surprised by the dimensions of our current counterterrorism efforts when assembled in a single volume,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a RAND Corp. counterterrorism analyst who authored the book’s foreword.
Marks and Kraft, both long-time Washington insiders, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the booming counterterrorism business that most people outside the Beltway might not even know exists.
“It’s amazing that most people know nothing about the federal government,” Marks said in an interview in his Washington office. The counterterrorism bureaucracy, especially since 9/11, has become hugely complex and impenetrable, he said. “It’s a big black box,” even though information about most agencies exist in the public domain. The entire book was written from unclassified, public information sources, said Marks.
Although the book makes it clear that counterterrorism is now in the portfolios of much of the federal bureaucracy, the authors decided they would not even attempt to come up with a head count or funding estimate for the entire U.S. counterterrorism effort. The problem is that so many agencies are now “dual use,” which means they have partial or peripheral anti-terrorism responsibilities, such as the Defense, State or Justice departments. Agencies also have thousands of private-sector “shadow” workers that support most CT programs.
“We decided that [a head count] is a figure that doesn’t help much,” said Marks.
Agencies that before 9/11 dealt primarily with issues such as immigration, narco-trafficking, export controls or cybersecurity now have blended into the counterterrorism machine. “How do you quantify how much of what they do is CT?” The foreign aid money that the United States provides to Pakistan, is that CT?
“Very few offices are purely counterterrorism,” Marks said.
Another sector that is seeing booming business as a result of the U.S. government’s greater focus on counterterrorism is the college market.
“Almost every college in the country is running counterterrorism courses,” said Marks. “It’s very fashionable, and everybody’s doing it.”
This new guide, the authors hope, could be adopted as a college textbook. Many state and city police departments also have their own CT programs and SWAT teams whose members are required to take courses.
It used to be that learning about terrorism meant studying who the bad buys are and what they do. Now it’s also important to know how the U.S. government is organized and who the main players are, Marks said. “If you’re getting into this business, this is the bureaucratic and political world you’re going to have to operate in.”
The authors also withheld judgment on whether all these agencies are necessary or produce any value for the taxpayer.
“We did not editorialize,” Marks said. But he acknowledged that there is obviously “enormous duplication all over the place.” That is no surprise to anyone familiar with how the U.S. government is organized in “stovepipes” that chase different “colors of money.”
Congressional committee jurisdictions also make it tough to share capabilities across departments, said Marks. When it comes to government agencies, “unnecessary is in the eye of the beholder.”
Another complicated question that is not specifically addressed in the book is the U.S. government’s counterterrorism pecking order. There is no clear CT chain of command below the president only because terrorism is not a simple, discrete problem. “It’s mixed in with all our agencies’ other problems and concerns,” said Marks.
It is the nature of American government that there are only two places where there’s cross-executive authority: The president and American ambassadors, he said. Nobody else has cross department executive authority.
As a result, counterterrorism programs tend to be rife with turf battles. “Everybody is trying to do the job,” he said. Even when the president creates a “task force” with a lead agency, these do not have executive authority.
As what the future holds for the CT business, Marks said it will depend on the “political attitudes towards the problem.”
How fear of terrorism ranks on the sensitivity index of the American public and political leadership will determine whether the gravy train will keep rolling on.
More than a decade after 9/11, the emerging consensus is that the United States will not declare victory in the war on terrorism, but that terrorism is a “problem that is never going to go away and we have to manage it along with our other problems,” Marks said. “To the degree that we see it as one problem but not the most important problem will affect the amount of money and resources that go into it.”
Kraft warns that efforts by Congress to cut spending could put a damper on many CT programs, especially those at the state level that rely on Department of Homeland Security grants. 
“My guess is that trend lines will go down,” Kraft said.
A sure prediction is that that the Pentagon will continue to reap the preponderance of CT federal dollars, said Marks, particularly in U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCOM keeps getting bigger, he said.  “They’ve ridden the anti-terrorism train, to the point of becoming a fifth service.”

Topics: Defense Department, Interagency Issues, Homeland Security

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