In 2006, an obscure Pentagon agency called the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) was created. Its mission, as the name suggested, was to defeat the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that at the time were so effectively killing and maiming coalition troops.
Iraqi IEDs became far less of a problem for the US military as the Iraq war wound down and, officially, ended. But rather than dissolving, JIEDDO changed both its name and its mission last year, announcing it would be known as the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, or JIDA.
"Our core competencies have proven to be a mission-enhancing capability that Congress and the [Defense] Department want to retain, incorporate, and leverage in future endeavors to support the warfighter at the speed and scope of the modern battlefield," Lieutenant General Michael Shields, JIDA's director, said at the time.
In English, what Shields meant is that the ad hoc organization, which originally came into existence while a panicked US was losing in Iraq, would become permanent, shifting from its original mission to countering, as the new name implied, "improvised threats." Thus, an obscure Pentagon agency saved itself from extinction with a name change and a reorganization, fending off Congressional efforts to eliminate it.
JIDA is hardly alone. Similar name changes are regularly occurring as the national security complex transitions from a war footing to a not-officially-war-but-also-not-peace footing. Name changes allow entities to dodge outside oversight and to prepare for whatever new administration takes charge next year. The name changes and reorganizations commonly involve the invocation of counter-this and counter-that (drugs, terrorism, IEDs) while also hiding domestic intelligence gathering behind a fog of opaque terms.
Though technically, it's incorrect to say JIDA isn't alone. This past January, JIDA changed its name yet again, becoming the Joint Improvised-Threat Defense Organization.
Not big enough to be an agency and not capable of surviving as an independent organization, JIDO now finds shelter as part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. DTRA (pronounced "ditra") is itself a shape-shifter organization that has survived decades of contractions and expansions: from its birth in 1947 as the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, to it becoming the Defense Atomic Support Agency in 1959, to its change into the Defense Nuclear Agency in 1971, to a brief incarnation as the Defense Special Weapons Agency starting in 1996, and finally as DTRA beginning in 1998. It is thus either the newest or oldest agency in the Department of Defense.
DTRA still predominantly focuses on weapons of mass destruction and military-grade radioactive materials, chemicals, and biological agents that could lead to proliferation. But threat has settled in as the term of art, because it is so pliable and expansive.
JIDO won't be a burden or a drain to DTRA because it brings with it a $400 million portfolio of counter-threat projects. That's not as impressive as the $4 billion budget that JIEDDO controlled at its peak in 2008, but it's still enough to top off DTRA's budget at more than $3.1 billion in the coming year.
If you've never heard of or thought about what these bureaucracies do, that's sort of the point: Apto Aut Morior — "I must adapt or I will die" — is the actual motto adopted by JIDA last year. Intended to convey rapid reaction to threats real and imagined, it says more about the agency than is intended.
JIDO's mandate to quickly counter the latest threats is perfectly reasonable, but JIDO stands alongside — and competes for budgets and power with — other similar ad hoc organizations. Each has a bureaucratic sponsor and an industrial constituency, thus obscuring a full understanding of the whole.
Take, for instance, the Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force (CTTTF), formed soon after 9/11, which changed its name to the Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) five years later because combating terrorism was too narrow for all the research opportunities it wanted to sponsor. Hidden within the Navy budget is the Counter-Networks & Illicit Trafficking office, or CNIT. It used to be the Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office, which itself added the term "terrorism" to its name only after 9/11 when the war on drugs ran a distant second to the burgeoning war on terror. And last month, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter highlighted the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) — which he created in 2012 — describing it as a unique organization producing rapid technology innovation.
JIDO, RRTO, CNIT, SCO: They spend billions of dollars and would seem to overlap each other at least in part, and without question, they all play a canny name game. The concept of threat is big right now, while the word terrorism appears to be losing some of its luster, at least when it comes to opening up spending coffers. And yet, the threat of terrorism hasn't declined, according to those behind all of the bureaucratic slight-of-hand. It just isn't a driver for billions of dollars in research and development in the way that it once was.
When JIEDDO was renamed JIDA last year, the agency said that the new name recognized "the need to sustain efforts that enable the defeat of improvised threats globally." No longer would the organization just focus on IEDs. The name change and diffuse focus, the agency claimed, would allow a new "proactive, threat-defeat approach... to help warfighters adapt to battlefield surprise." Similarly, Carter claimed last month in discussing SCO that such an off-line organization with an indeterminate mission is "good for the troops, [and] it's good for the taxpayers as well." Good for the taxpayer, Carter unintentionally admitted, because the "regular" bureaucracy is so broken and entrenched that decision-makers feel they need to go outside it to get things done.
Ad hoc concepts, like bureaucracies, tend to dig in. The concept of "attack the network" was a pillar in the fight against IEDs in the last Iraq war and continues to dominate in the fight against the Islamic State. The concept being that going after the network behind the bombs has longer-term and superior impact to the concept of "attack the device." And so the producers, the facilitators, and the movers began to be mapped and targeted.
But the threat has expanded from Osama bin Laden–led al Qaeda, predominantly located in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to terrorism and insurgency throughout the Middle East, to other organizations in Africa, and now to Europe and the United States.
Attack the network, in other words, went global. Not coincidentally, attack the network is now undergoing its own name change, to "network engagement."
"Engaging the network," a tri-service Pentagon document assures, "merely broadens the concept. We engage friendly networks by defending them, neutral networks by influencing or mitigating them, and threat networks by defeating or destroying them."
In other words, all networks need to be mapped and engaged, which means intelligence collection to defeat the bad guys who lurk within: "Understanding the three types of networks begins with a basic appreciation for their structure, characteristics, dynamics, and purposes," reads the training manual. Friendly or adversary, "the analytical process for describing networks and predicting their behavior is largely the same."
Above this year's Super Bowl, helicopters, planes, and drones from multiple agencies flew missions to watch and listen in on the crowd, intelligence sources tell VICE News. It wasn't called domestic surveillance or even the commonly used "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance." Instead, the missions were called "incident awareness and assessment," a term favored by the Pentagon inside the United States to obscure the fact that military and intelligence agencies are engaged in domestic collection.
Within the past year, even the term "intelligence collection" has fallen out of favor, being replaced by "information collection" when used in the Army. And "combat information" is being replaced by "actionable information," allowing collection and analysis beyond combat arenas.
Almost every organization in the government that deals with national security maintains a spectrum of dangers as they see them. On the left of the spectrum can be hurricanes or some other relatively commonplace event. On the right almost always is an apocalyptic event like nuclear war. The people at what was once JIEDDO, then JIDA, and now JIDO have their own image of the threat continuum. Their Strategic Plan for 2012-2016 defines the left side of the threat continuum — the least threatening — as "The Disenfranchised." Oregon militias? Black Lives Matter? People who support Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump?
Whoever the Disenfranchised are, they compose networks to be mapped and scrutinized. And to do so, the bureaucracy, interested in creating greater freedom to do whatever it wants, plays word games to obscure both the activity and the outcome.
Follow William M. Arkin on Twitter: @warkin