May 21, 2002
The Real Failures
The 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 American people.
Well, 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.
The 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?
This 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 Imperial City.
It 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?
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.
While 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?"
The 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.
It 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.
Why 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 effectively.
What 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.
Later 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.
There 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.
Government 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.
This 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.
There's 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!"
The 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.
I 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.
Whenever 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.
But 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?
Which 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.
So now we'll have congressional hearings with too much grandstanding and too much politicization. Perhaps we'll even get an independent commission.
Such 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 use.
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form
Your Contributions are now Tax-Deductible