America’s spy agencies are spending more money on obtaining intelligence than the rest of the world put together. Considerably more. To what extent they are providing value for money is an open question.

“Sometimes we are getting our money’s worth,” says John Pike, director of, a Washington think tank. “Sometimes I think it would be better to truck the money we spend to a large parking lot and set fire to it.”

The biggest post-Cold War miss of the sprawling intelligence community was its failure to connect the dots of separate warnings about the impending attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It also laid bare a persistent flaw in a system swamped by a tsunami of data collected through high-tech electronic means: not enough linguists to analyse information.

That problem was thrown into sharp focus by the government’s disclosure, long after September 11, that it had a 123,000-hour backlog of pre-attack taped message traffic in Middle Eastern languages, clear evidence of a system drowning in its own information.

The overall amount of money spent on the collection and analysis of intelligence as well as on covert actions and counter-intelligence by civilian agencies and the military was long shrouded in secrecy. It was disclosed last September by Dennis Blair, then President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence: $75 billion a year.