OK, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s speech sometimes lacked rhythmn. But Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, hit a few high notes and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn laid down the back beat with his classic straight-ahead delivery.
But the message of their song of woe is worth hearing since many people, even in the Pentagon, believe that intelligence is so important that is must have gotten an exemption from sequestration’s idiotic impact. It did not, DNI Clapper reminded everyone at the Intelligence National Security Alliance’s first conference.
Will it matter, or will black money quietly flow in to make things good? “Will sequestration affect intelligence quality?” Clapper called out. “Of course it will. You don’t take cuts of that magnitude without losing capability.” No one cried out but the room was pretty quiet, After all, it was full of 450 some intelligence officials and contractors.
The real crunch for intelligence, which has feasted on billions and billions in operations and maintenance (O and M) money annually for much of the last 12 years on top of its various base budgets, occurs because O and M dough gets hits the hardest by sequestration. A lot of it isn’t stuff with a line item but is based on “historic averages” or what a few smart people think the department will need for the next year, even though they aren’t really sure.
Chairman Rogers told me on his way out of the conference that the intel programs were not hit hard through fiscal year 2013 but will get hit hard beginning next month, when 2014 begins.
“Some of these programs will get hit 17 percent and some of them will just go dark,” he said as we walked.
Flynn sang a spare and straight line. In his world, “demand is skyrocketing but resources are constrained” and he’s just “making sure we can manage sequestration.”
But Clapper introduced a powerful downbeat. There’s a much bigger problem for the intelligence community as it manages its major acquisition programs like the next-generation spy satellites being built by Lockheed Martin. Traditionally, the National Reconnaissance Office, builder and operator of the nation’s spy satellites, as well as the NSA and its sister agency, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, have relied on 50 percent program reserves. Reserves like that — unthinkable in the traditional world of defense acquisition — allow the IC to pursue enormously complex and technically advanced systems and not stumble, slow and end up costing even more over time when they hit an unanticipated technical challenge or someone screws up.
That money, wailed Clapper (OK, he didn’t wail, but I’m trying to keep the whole “blues thing” going here), may be in peril. “One year you can do that,” he said, “but after that it gets very problematic. We don’t have any way to manage that problem.” And, as we keep hearing about sequestration, that is the problem. No one can manage well around it because it’s so rigid.
Yeah, those intel sequestration blues, baby!