Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flunking the Lessons of September 11

From Family Security Matters.

Flunking the Lessons of September 11

Hiring hundreds of bureaucrats hasn't made America safer

September 11 was the moment when history finally caught up to America, that sparkling bright day when we lost whatever innocence still remained. Living in McLean, Va., and working as a military analyst for NBC News, I was no better prepared than anyone else. Ironies abounded: Beginning on a snowy morning in February, I had regularly taped running commentaries for an MSNBC documentary (remember them?) with a working title of "Attack on Manhattan." Focused on the unlikely idea of terrorists attacking the United States, it eerily predicted an attack on the twin towers and was scheduled to air later in September.

On that Tuesday, MSNBC was then programming endless footage of the search for missing intern Chandra Levy, interspersed with shark attacks on Florida's beaches. When the phone rang, I had to admit to an NBC News vice president that, no, I really hadn't been watching our network that morning. Even the burning tower failed to register as anything more than an unlikely accident until the second plane swooped in like a rampaging shark - and everything became instantly and horribly clear.

Air Force pilots are fond of saying that the three most useless things in the world are altitude above you, runway behind you - and one second ago. I thought of that while driving like a madman across the Potomac River's Chain Bridge, startled anew at seeing smoke plumes suddenly billowing from the Pentagon. I had worked there for five years as a strategic analyst - and many friends and colleagues still did. How had we missed the buildup to all this? If documentary film producers were capable of thinking the unthinkable, then why hadn't the professionals responsible for our security absorbed lessons ceaselessly drummed into my generation as the living legacy of Pearl Harbor?

I tried to make sense of it both for myself and for TV audiences in the days and months that followed. In reporting its lengthy deliberations, the 9/11 Commission added the phrases "connecting the dots" and "failure of imagination" to the national lexicon as explanations for our catastrophic intelligence failure. However, no one in a major position of responsibility was ever fired, disciplined or had their careers terminated as the implacable penalty for failure. CIA Director George Tenet was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as if he were somebody really special like Oprah. Worse yet, we rushed to create huge new bureaucracies with hopeful titles - the Directorate of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security - both dedicated to the proposition that September 11 resulted from the absence of adult supervision in government.

Then precisely a year ago, Benghazi, provided unmistakable proof that problems considered "done and done" after September 11 are the relentlessly persistent flaws of American governance. We now know that the CIA was involved at every stage of the Benghazi tragedy, yet the agency never managed to persuade White House decision-makers that the 11th anniversary of 9/11 was an occasion worth considering as an actual threat - and preparing accordingly. (And risk interrupting a campaign narrative that seems to be working?)

Similarly lost in the hullabaloo over National Security Agency spying is that collecting a gazillion bits and bytes of information, while documenting the random and randy thoughts of every American cruising the Internet, somehow resulted in another failure of intelligence - one that did not prevent the April bombing of the Boston Marathon. Despite tips from Russian intelligence concerning the growing Islamist radicalization of the elder Tsarnaev brother, the FBI somehow failed to warn the Boston Police Department that they might have a problem on their hands.

Then how much has changed? In 1962, future Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote this forward to Roberta Wohlstetter's classic book on Pearl Harbor: "Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse bureaucratic thing . The results at Pearl Harbor were sudden, concentrated and dramatic. The failure, however, was cumulative, widespread, and rather drearily familiar."

Mr. Schelling's words could have been applied with equal validity to the 9/11 Commission, the accountability review board that halfheartedly investigated Benghazi and whatever inquiry may eventually look into the Boston Marathon bombing. We seem to think that growing government a little more and adding just another layer of bureaucratic supervision must necessarily be the right answer to whatever security or related nightmare currently troubles us.

Having tried everything else, can we fight more like networks than hierarchies? How about cutting administrative layers, shortening chains of command and placing more responsibility and accountability at lower, rather than higher, levels? Do that while dispensing with a few bureaucrats - either for acting as bad examples or just for the heck of it - and our future might contain more pleasant surprises than our past.

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