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Homeland Security Office Creates ‘Intelligence Spam,’ Insiders Say
Posted on Sep 6, 2011
By Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz, CIR
While the overall intelligence community last year remained in the top 10 places to work in the federal government, surveys from the intelligence and analysis office put it again near the bottom of all government workplaces. The employees said they were not satisfied with their jobs or the organization. They said they would not recommend the office as a good place to work, according to the survey.
Current and former employees said the office is seen merely as a way station for rising stars and a dumping ground for mediocre or inexperienced analysts.
Such internal problems have plagued the office for years, even as pay for its government employees rose. The average salary for analysis and operations employees in 2010 reached $122,000, relatively high for the government, while executive pay hit $185,000. One internal report from 2009 [PDF] described the office as “stuck in its nascency, unable to evolve.”
“Today’s most pressing concerns are the same as those that have been frustrating employees for the past several years,” the report said.
Square, Site wide
Homeland security figures show the turnover rate has decreased slightly over the past two years.
But more than 60 percent of the employees in an internal survey last year said they planned to take jobs elsewhere within a year.
“That is a very high percentage,” said John Palguta of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which compiled the rankings. “Even knowing that many of them will not succeed in finding another job, to have over half of the organization’s staff interested in being someplace else within a year is not a good sign.”
Charles E. Allen, who took over the office in 2005, tried to tackle the morale and perception problems. After a distinguished career that lasted nearly 50 years at the CIA, Allen brought gravitas to the office and standing in the intelligence community. Joining him was a cast of former CIA veterans dubbed “Charlie’s Angels,” credited with improving the office’s analytical ability.
In an interview, Allen said the office had only four or five analysts with national intelligence analytical experience when he arrived. He had to rely heavily on contractors, particularly Booz Allen.
“For us to compete within national intelligence and to send out to other intelligence agencies or the Northern Command or the El Paso Intelligence Center – DEA – we had to have quality work,” Allen said. “And I refused to have any (bad product) released.”
In a 2006 assessment, however, the White House Office of Management and Budget gave the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence outfit failing marks for performance and accountability. One of the performance measures was the number of unfinished intelligence reports, a metric that Allen highlighted in speeches and congressional testimony.
While Allen and his top deputy were considered brilliant analysts, they struggled as managers, current and former officials said. They said Allen wanted to build a mini-CIA, and was slow to embrace state and local efforts.
Allen disputed those criticisms, saying the office during his tenure deployed technology and intelligence officers to aid state and local police around the country. “There was an extraordinary paradigm shift when it came to state and locals,” he said.
The Obama administration has pushed the office to focus more of its attention on state and local law enforcement – turf that traditionally is the FBI’s responsibility. It also appears the administration has diminished the office’s counterterrorism role, former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., testified in May [PDF].
Harman and others say that the office should focus more on information developed by other DHS agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – what’s unique to the department.
The office has also tried to implement reforms, including more legal reviews to weed out inappropriate reports. It also has shifted the balance of employees by hiring more government workers. In February, it released a new strategic plan.
Cohen, the Department of Homeland Security’s counterterrorism official, said critics don’t have the most current view of the office. The office still has a robust counterterrorism role, he said. As office leaders steer analysts toward producing reports better suited to state and local police, a dip in morale is expected, he said.
“One of the key roles for (the office) is to be a purveyor of knowledge to inform day-to-day crime-fighting efforts,” he said. “That’s not something that was clearly understood in the early days.”
Allen, the office’s former chief, acknowledges missteps. But he said he also believes that critics are misguided. He said the office is hitting its stride and needs more time.
“We accomplished a great deal,” he said. “I think it’s a five- to 10-year process to build a new culture and get the leadership that is required and the kinds of intelligence officers who are really good.”
But critics said such talk is not new. Even some congressional supporters question the value of the office’s voluminous output.
In an interview, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, who heads a House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee, said the office improved recently by focusing on state and local partners. But the office must make the information it shares more relevant, he said.
“If no one’s reading the product, what’s it worth?” he said.
Grace Mastalli, a former U.S. deputy assistant attorney general with the Department of Homeland Security, agrees. She said something has to change. There’s too much at stake for the nation’s security, and too great a cost to taxpayers, to do nothing, she said.
“It’s way too much money for way too few results,” she said. “I know everyone has been working hard, but the public record speaks for itself.”
A version of this story ran in Newsweek.
This story was edited by Robert O’Harrow Jr., Mark Katches and Robert Salladay. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.
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