9/11 wasn't an "intelligence failure" any more than the Iraq War, and yet we have this reified notion that it "could have been prevented" if only someone had been able to "connect the dots." Indeed, in retrospect, it is evident that had information followed a slightly different series of paths, passed over a slightly different series of desks, been aggregated in a more efficacious manner and presented by more politically well-positioned agents, operatives, and appointees, the specific plot to fly planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon might possibly have been disrupted. And if the Hindenberg had been filled with helium . . .
One way or other, there seems to be a broad consensus that the path to safety lies in renovating our institutions of intelligence and defense with an eye toward some past perceived failure. This can have little salutary effect, since the next failure, such as it is, will be of a different kind. The institutional inability to create foreign and domestic intelligence services that will have significant anticipatory capacities as regards terrorism--international or domestic--won't be improved, much less eliminated, by spending "years, requiring bottom-up cultural transformation as well as top-down policy changes." The fact thn an advocate for such reform recognizes the long incubation and multiple points of influence necessary for such change, but advocates for it nevertheless, indicates just how narrow a range of thought applies to the question of American security. Consider the linked article, in which the answer to the bureaucratic impediments of a decentralized organization is a centralized bureaucracy! Long-dead horses are beaten:
In each case, failure stemmed from the same causes: 1. agency cultures that led officials to resist new ideas, technologies and missions; 2. promotion incentives that rewarded all the wrong things; and 3. structural weaknesses that hampered the CIA and the FBI and prevented all 15 U.S intelligence agencies from working as a unified team.Of course the reason that institutions are resistant to "new ideas, technologies, and missions," is that most of the time they prove to be at best wastes of time and money and at worst spectacular, catastrophic, derailing insitutional capacities. Institutional stability promotes institutional longevity, and organizational self-preservation obtains as much in government agencies as in business entitites. People's jobs and prerogatives are tied up in their institutions, and they are not going to consent, individually or collectively, to drive over a cliff without a pretty good indication that the car's gonna sprout wings and fly.
The FBI's law enforcement culture, which prized catching criminals and investigating past crimes more than finding suspected terrorists and preventing future disasters, guaranteed that the manhunt would go straight to the bottom of the pile.
Promotional incentives that "reward all the wrong things" are pretty much par for the course (but the author is a professor, and understandably ignorant of an ordinary workplace). But we get a sense in the second part of the extract above, where the FBI's "law enforcement culture" is lamented. This being one of the most common complaints in our post-9/11 doubtfest, it deserves every howl of derision we can muster. The FBI has a "law enforcement culture" because the FBI is a law enforcement agency. A person doesn't complain that a zoo focuses on animals, an optometrist on eyesight, an astronaut on outer space.
And at long last: Perhaps the "structural weaknesses" preventing "all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies from working as a unified team," derive from the insanity of having 15 U.S. Intelligence services in the first place. That's not an argument for centralization, but an argument from utility. Decentralizing power and administration is generally beneficial in my experience, but the corollary profusion of fiefdoms should be resisted. What on earth can 15 intelligence agencies do? Are there 15 relatively discrete sections of the intelligence trades apportioned among them, or does this profusion indicate instead a nation that, since it cannot and will not ever reexamine the way it interacts with the world, has set itself on a course of hoovering up every bit of information it can find, however relevant or irrelevant, only to complain inevitably that some sand slipped between its squeezing fingers?
Absolute security is illusory, but the practical steps in its general direction lie not in haranguing CIA directors and FBI agents to adopt management-consultant pablum as daily mantras. It lies, rather, in not invading other countries, not deposing other governments, not garrisoning hundreds of thousands of troops in a global archipelago of military satrapies, and in general striving not to be such a fucking dick and bully on he playground that the other kids are inspired to take a swing at your nose from time to time.