Bruce Hoffman

Thinking Outside the Box

I got my first job in Washington 35 years ago. If I have learned anything since then, it is that when someone here talks about the need to think “out of the box,” everyone usually runs as fast they can in the opposite direction.

This of course was one of the salient criticisms of American counterterrorism strategy and policy that the 9/11 Commission made in its seminal 2004 report. “We believe,” it concluded that “the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”

The American approach to counterterrorism, as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin reported in the Washington Post two months ago, has been markedly less creative than overly bureaucratic. It entailed, they meticulously documented, the creation of a vast and expensive counterterrorism and homeland security archipelago.

This led Priest and Arkin to conclude that “lack of focus, not lack of resources was at the heart” of the serial failures over the past year to anticipate the Fort Hood shootings that claimed the lives of thirteen persons last November; the fortuitously botched Christmas Day airline bombing plot; and, the attempted attack in New York City’s Times Square this past May.

As I wrote in this space last month, for my money, the most innovative and cutting-edge work being done in the U.S. at any level of government in the critically vital symbiotic areas of counterterrorism and homeland security is that performed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD)—and specifically by its separate Intelligence and Counterterrorism Divisions.

The “Metropolitan” section of the Sunday New York Times (which persons living outside of the New York metropolitan region usually do not receive in hardcopy) carried a fascinating profile of the Intelligence Division’s Analytic Unit and its accomplished director, Mitchell D. Silber.

The article provided a rare, but highly informative and, indeed, compelling, look at this “little-known unit of the New York Police Dept. [that] relies on the expertise of civilian analysts to unlock an unfamiliar world.”

As reporter Alan Feuer explained:

Formally known as the Analytic Unit of the department’s Intelligence Division, the team was created in 2002 as part of the city’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It stands as a unique experiment in breaking traditional law-enforcement boundaries, comprising two dozen civilian experts—lawyers, academics, corporate consultants, investment bankers, alumni of the World Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations and even a former employee of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan.

The team serves as the Police Department’s terrorism reference arm: available on demand to explain Islamic law or Pakistani politics to detectives in the field.

‘We have found that conducting terrorism investigations is more art than science and requires a breadth of complementary skill sets,’ Mr. Silber said during one of several interviews this summer. ‘Our detectives tend to have a very narrow focus. But the analysts have 360-degree visibility. They focus on the bigger picture, and they sometimes see things detectives don’t see.’

Interestingly, the article also recounted NYPD’s success in luring analysts from the federal government in Washington—precisely the place, one would have assumed, where the most exciting, challenging and innovative counterterrorism and homeland security work is being done.

Alas, this does not appear to be the case. “New York seems an ideal place to practice this theory of intellectual investigation,” Feuer continues, “and the unit has managed over the years to attract people who have worked in the Washington bureaucracy and seem to prefer the city.”

Coincidentally, I later chanced upon evidence to support this argument while reading the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of OSS: The OSS Society Journal, kindly sent to me by its publisher.

The OSS, of course, is the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II–era U.S. intelligence and covert action agency founded by First World War hero, Medal of Honor recipient and Wall Street lawyer Wiliam J. “Wild Bill” Donovan at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request. The OSS was the precursor to both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

The journal's mission is to “celebrate the historic accomplishments of the Office of Strategic Services and to educate the American public about the continuing importance of strategic intelligence to the preservation of freedom.” It might also be said, that an additional purpose is to celebrate and highlight the “out of the box” thinking that epitomized the OSS and played so signal a role in the victory won in less than five years by the U.S. in World War II.

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