The United States may have the largest and most complex national security apparatus in the world, although no one knows for sure.

Nations are not very forthcoming about such things.

But a Washington Post investigation presented last summer found that our secret system of eavesdroppers, spies, analysts and other bureaucrats is so large and dispersed that no single person in government fully understands its exact dimensions.

The system, the Post found, exploded in size in the wake of 9/11 when the Bush administration essentially issued a blank check to spy agencies to expand their reach.

And expand they did, with secret facilities in and around Washington and across the country. Some are still under construction.

The Post, however, found that no government agency monitors either the cost or effectiveness of these efforts.

The Post stories chronicled how the foiling of high-profile threats on U.S. soil has had nothing to do with high-tech spy agencies. All have been thwarted by low-tech tips from concerned citizens and street cops.

Worse, our security agencies regularly mishandle warnings that are virtually handed to them.

A fresh example emerged Wednesday when a U.S. Army investigation revealed that mental health specialists had recommended against the deployment of Bradley E. Manning, the private first class accused of leaking thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables.

Despite his mental instability, Manning was not only deployed to Iraq but granted unsupervised access to a vast collection of diplomatic secrets.

He downloaded thousands of them and eventually provided them to WikiLeaks, which continues to make them public.

The case echos that of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood psychiatrist who killed 13 people and wounded 30 others.

Hasan had a long history of not only professional incompetence but very public expressions of anger toward the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He once expressed approval to colleagues when two Army recruiters were shot in 2009. Six months before the Fort Hood attack, he came to the attention of superiors when he joined discussion groups on jihad and suicide bombings.

Officials also knew that Hasan tried to contact al-Qaeda and conducted e-mail exchanges with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Files were opened and reports collected, but nothing was done.

Perhaps the most frustrating mishandling of information involved Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the underwear bomber.

The suspect tried to ignite explosives molded to his body and sewn into his underwear on Christmas Day 2009 as a jet carrying 289 passengers and crew prepared to land in Detroit.

Afterward, we learned his father, a wealthy Nigerian banker, had gone to a U.S. embassy a month before and warned authorities that his son was dangerous.

Embassy officials passed the information along, a file was opened, but again, nothing more was done. Abdulmutallab wasn’t even placed on the U.S. no-fly list.

While transparency in government is normally good in a democracy, spycraft naturally requires secrecy.

Still, in light of these well-publicized lapses, and the billions of new dollars being spent on intelligence gathering, Americans deserve to know whether they are safer as a result.

There are reasons to doubt we are.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.


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