February 15, 2013
James Clapper on the sequester
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With a March 1 deadline for sequestration legislation approaching, it’s the season for scare talk about the effects of budget cuts. But even discounting for this, the warning Thursday from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about the impact on America’s spy agencies was ominous.

Clapper discussed in a telephone interview Thursday what sequestration will mean for the 16 intelligence organizations he oversees. His remarks were amplified by a statement his office emailed Friday morning. Clapper warned that “the sheer size of the cut will create an immediate national security crisis situation” because some key collection and analysis programs will have to be cut. He made similar comments in an interview yesterday with Reuters.

Cuts to intelligence budgets are especially sensitive because the United States is fighting a war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that seek to target the United States. Clapper said he will seek to mitigate these effects by redirecting money or cutting low-priority spending, but he cautioned: “Absorbing these cuts in short a short timeframe will require the budgetary equivalent of emergency amputations.”

Clapper said that he would have to cut 9 percent in defense accounts, which fund overhead reconnaissance and other surveillance systems, and 7 to 8 percent for domestic accounts, such as the FBI. Because those cuts will have to be absorbed within the seven remaining months of fiscal 2013, he said their impact would be “nearly double” the stated amounts.

The sequestration ax will fall on nearly every intelligence activity: “Analysis and enabling tools and services will be scoped back substantially,” Clapper said, with the danger that “we risk missing the early signs of a threat.” Contacts with human sources will be affected, which could “risk not only strategic or tactical surprise, but the erosion of important gains made over the past decade” against Al Qaeda and other targets.

The expensive “collection architecture” of surveillance satellites in space will also be impacted. Clapper said he planned to delay the launch of one sensitive satellite, in addition to stretching out contracts for existing systems and decommissioning older ones. “Our technical advantage will deteriorate,” he said.

The cuts will also delay research into new surveillance and analysis technologies, “increasing the possibility that we will be late to meet emerging threats,” Clapper said.

When it comes to budget cuts, Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly noted decades ago the tendency for what he called the “Firemen First” approach. Officials try to fend off cuts by detailing the scariest possible consequences, such as cutbacks in fire fighters or other emergency personnel. But in this case, the sequestration legislation appears to give Clapper so little flexibility that he may actually have to slice into muscle and fat with equal vigor—creating real vulnerabilities in intelligence programs aimed at making the country safer.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.