most gratifying aspect of the mostly insignificant flap over what kind of information
about possible terrorist attacks the White House and other members of the vaunted
"intelligence community" had before 9/11 was the sheer defensiveness
it brought out in President Bush. He actually felt it was important, at an Air
Force Academy event Friday, to assure the American people that if he had connected
the dots before 9/11 he would have done everything in his power to protect the
duh, Dubya. Hardly anybody doubts that. Aside from a few conspiracy theorists
who might believe the attack was orchestrated (or allowed) to buttress the profits
of the Carlyle Group, most people, even Democrats, think that if the White House
had known for sure in advance, it would have tried to do something. The question
is whether the White House and the intelligence community demonstrated sheer incompetence.
president's defensiveness suggests that he understands the real question and feels
vulnerable about it. Perhaps he shouldn't worry, because most of his critics are
even more incompetent and clueless than he is. But the bluster raises other questions.
It took eight months and a leak for the American people to know about this important
(though probably not all that crucial) bit of information. Is there more information,
perhaps more incriminating, that President Bush is afraid might get out?
has been from the beginning an administration more obsessed than any since Nixon
with secrecy and the prevention of leaks. Perhaps Dubya was just upset that a
leak had interrupted the smooth flow of news management. But the defensiveness
suggests vulnerability. I hope leakers and diggers are busier than ever in the
is also interesting we'll have to see how instructive it turns out to be
that while the alleged failure of the administration was the big story
of Saturday, by Sunday it had become almost secondary. Was this because the government
put out yet another of those non-specific, non-regional, generalized "heightened
threat" alerts that have become almost routine since September 11? Surely
the government wouldn't try to finesse criticism by scaring the American people
yet again, would it?
is almost (though not quite) possible to sympathize with the administration for
a moment or two. No question, there has been sensationalism, 20/20 hindsight and
political opportunism in the reaction to revelations last week that President
Bush received a CIA briefing Aug. 6 last year to the effect that Osama bin Laden
might be planning a hijacking. It's especially marvelous that some of the criticism
of failure to act on the warning from the Phoenix FBI office about Arabs going
to flight school comes from people who would have jumped all over the administration
about racial profiling if that concern had ever been made public.
hardly anybody in Washington looks very competent, however, there is a slim chance
that this flap could be a catalyst to an inquiry into more important and fundamental
questions than "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Sept. 11 attacks were surprising to almost everybody, pulled off by ruthless and
skillful planners who obviously knew something about American vulnerabilities.
Despite hints and forebodings being replayed in the media repeatedly just now nobody connected the dots well enough to prevent the attack. The question is
why nobody put the pieces together.
is essential to remember that Sept. 11, in addition to being an outrageous act,
was also a massive failure by the government to perform the one job that most
convincingly justifies its existence protecting the American people from attacks
by enemies foreign or domestic.
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
did the government, with all the resources at its disposal, fail so miserably?
Teasing out answers to that question is much more important than learning exactly
what was in a particular briefing paper (although there is no excuse for keeping
it secret). The evidence is growing that the government failed in large part because
it is so overgrown that its bureaus and departments can't communicate or coordinate
happened in this case? An FBI agent in Phoenix expressed alarm to headquarters
in June about a rising number of Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons. The
warning disappeared into the chaff of paperwork and didn't get to anyone who could
have acted on it.
an FBI agent in Minnesota expressed enough concern that Zacarias Moussaoui was
arrested, but there was no follow-up. It is quite possible that effective follow-up
would not have prevented the attacks. But it should be clear that these are systemic
failures. The response has been to beef up agencies and increase their budgets.
It might well have made more sense to fire some people and streamline the agencies.
are more than 40 agencies in Washington that have some kind of intelligence-related
or counter-terrorism functions. Although they have some small capacity to cooperate
in a readily perceived crisis, by and large they act like most government bureaus
protective of their turf, secretive, more inclined to mystify than to clarify.
agencies don't succeed by eliminating the problems they are assigned to monitor
or deal with. They succeed by building up the problems and making them appear
so complex and arcane that only a larger budget and more highly-paid experts and
analysts can give the poor beleaguered American people any slim chance of coping
with the immensity of it all. The most powerful institutional incentive is not
to solve a problem but to perpetuate it.
doesn't necessarily mean that all the analysts and executives in government agencies
consciously and purposefully seek to fail to eliminate problems. But it does mean
that those who want to focus on their actual elimination or to seek innovative
approaches don't get much encouragement. And as agencies grow, their ability
to focus and coordinate diminishes accordingly.
an even deeper question that might lead some members of the Bush administration
to be defensive. The 9/11 attacks revealed weaknesses in the whole command-and-control
hierarchical state structure our leaders are always telling us is the only thing
standing between us and chaos. As my old friend Butler
Shaffer put it, "Statism was dealt a dual blow on 9/11: these attacks
occurred because of prior governmental policies and action, and that same government
was incapable of providing the defense that millions of Americans mistakenly believed
their trillions of tax dollars had been spent to provide!"
attack was a demonstration of what might be called the downside of what seems
to be an irreversible trend. Social systems are moving from centralized to decentralized
structures, from vertical to horizontal networks of communication. However we
might hate to admit it, al Qaida (while sharing some attributes of old-fashioned
political conspiratorial organizations like communist cells) is a decentralized,
non-state structure. As such, it has certain advantages over a pyramidal structure,
as it demonstrated.
will continue to believe that insofar as terrorist organizations like al Qaida
seek mainly destruction rather than the development of people-friendly alternatives
to the pyramidal structures, they will ultimately peter out (though a great deal
of death and destruction might be dealt in the interim). Meanwhile, top-down organizations
will continue to be vulnerable to decentralized structures like the Internet,
which is one reason governments all over the world are so desperately trying to
seize control of new methods of communication before they get out of hand. I think
and hope that it's too late for them.
conventional thinkers discuss matters bearing tangentially on such issues (most
will not dare to address them directly), they indulge in scare-mongering. I must
have heard 20 government officials discuss the "open" American society
over the weekend, and every one used the word "vulnerable" within three
words. Our openness makes us vulnerable, is the message, and you need more help
from the top-downers to reduce your vulnerability.
open societies, like diverse ecosystems, have sources of strength and stability
that cannot be imposed from the top down. Throughout the Cold War prophets of
vulnerability pointed to the penetration of vulnerable American institutions by
Soviet agents and at the apparent superiority of the Soviet spy system over our
largely amateurish and disorganized bunch. Besides, all a Soviet spy had to do
was go to a decent public library to find out all kinds of information of the
type that was closely-held in the Soviet Union. How did the West stand a chance?
system, however, despite repeated failures in the great game of intelligence by
the United States (see Robert Hanssen) is not on the ash heap of history? Open
societies have a resiliency that closed societies don't and that even advocates
of open societies often fail to recognize or acknowledge. That doesn't mean they
won't take some pummeling or be subject to justified self-criticism. But they
can be stronger than even their friends think.
now we'll have congressional hearings with too much grandstanding and too much
politicization. Perhaps we'll even get an independent commission.
efforts can be useful in digging out and publicizing information. If they don't
include the option of streamlining and focusing intelligence services rather than
padding them, however and if they don't invite discussion about the more
fundamental shortcomings of top-down institutions they will be of little
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