The Pretend Fix

September 8, 2011 Topic: BureaucracyPublic OpinionTerrorism Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

The Pretend Fix

Americans needed a catharsis. What they got was a bungled "reorganization" and a host of new problems.

[amazon 0231157924 full]Amid the crescendo of stock-taking retrospective assessments marking the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, I suggested earlier this week that the most important retrospective reflection is to consider why the world’s superpower should have become so preoccupied with this one incident that ten years later there are still so many retrospective reflections about it. But I'm going to indulge in offering one more retrospective assessment. Consider it a corrective to much of the national self-assurance we have been hearing about how measures taken since 9/11 have made us all safer. In fact, some of those measures have not made us safer but instead have served the psychologically satisfying function of letting us pretend that we are fixing a problem. I focus on one particular measure—reorganization of the intelligence community—because I happen to be especially familiar with it and because it was one of the most prominent of the supposed fixes.

Americans, being denizens of a historically successful country, tend to think that with enough ingenuity and determination any problem they face can be fixed. The trauma of 9/11 elicited this attitude in spades. If something horrible like that happened, went the thinking, it must have been because some part of the government was broken; fix that problem and there would not be a recurrence of the horrible happening. Attention was especially focused on intelligence for several reasons: that it has traditionally been a focus of attention in this way, the unpopularity of the agencies concerned, an unrealistic view of what is knowable, and a belief that if the public were surprised by something than that part of the government must have been surprised as well.

The body known as the 9/11 Commission became the vehicle for fulfilling the public's yearnings in this regard and for achieving a kind of national catharsis after the tragedy of 9/11. The commission performed that role masterfully, hitting all the expected notes about making Americans safe by fixing a broken intelligence community. It did not matter that the intelligence community had actually provided strong strategic warning about the threat that would materialize on 9/11. The commission staff dealt with that inconvenient fact by producing a highly politicized report that conveyed a different impression, mostly by simply not mentioning a large portion of the relevant and accurate work that the intelligence community had done. It also did not matter that there was a lack of good new ideas about how to do such work better. The favorite Washington response when lacking better ideas for fixing something is to reorganize. So reorganization it was. The commission dusted off an old idea to separate the position of Director of Central Intelligence into two jobs. It added another proposal, also based on pre-9/11 ideas, for an additional counterterrorist center alongside the existing centers devoted to the topic. The net result of this rearrangement of the intelligence community's wiring diagram was more, and more complicated, bureaucracy. In a move pitched as addressing a problem of coordinating work of several agencies, it added a couple of new agencies whose work needs to be coordinated. In touting what supposedly was a fix to a problem of information flowing across bureaucratic lines, it added still more bureaucratic lines across which information must flow.

The commission did such a skillful job of providing the catharsis the public wanted, and its output was accepted so uncritically and automatically, that the description I just presented is jarringly at odds with the prevailing public perception of what both the commission and the intelligence community had done. I don't expect anyone to accept this description on the basis of these brief remarks here. A full appreciation of what took place requires a more detailed look at this subject, including a detailed examination of the commission's handling of the subject—an examination that has been almost entirely missing in the unquestioning acceptance of what the commission said and did. I invite the reader to consult my own attempt at such an examination in the relevant portions of a just-released book and to reach his or her own judgments on the matter.

The defects of a reorganization scheme that serves more as catharsis than as a better way to combat terrorism have been all too apparent in the six years that the scheme has been in effect. And yet the uncritical acceptance of what the commission said and did has meant a refusal—most conspicuously, of course, by people associated with the commission itself—to recognize those defects. Instead, the problems get blamed on something else. A  recently issued “Report Card” by the National Security Preparedness Group, which is co-chaired by the 9/11 Commission's leaders and describes itself as a “follow-on” to the commission, expresses two laments about how the position of Director of National Intelligence, one of the new jobs the created, has turned out. First, the DNI has failed to be “the driving force for intelligence community integration that we had envisioned.” The report card talks about a possible need for giving the DNI more authority over budgets and personnel. But the inherent limitation in all this—the fundamental flaw in looking to such an official to be this kind of “driving force”—is that the intelligence community is a community, not a unitary organization, for good reason, and always will be. Most of the components of the community are in other departments because they serve those departments' intelligence needs, and the secretaries of those departments will rightly insist that it stay that way. The second lament is to note the rapid turnover in the DNI job, with four directors in six years. The report card doesn't mention the main reason for this: the severe and unavoidable frustrations and frictions stemming from the reorganization scheme itself, with unclear lines of responsibility and a disconnect between power and responsibility.

Ten years ought to be enough time for Americans to get over their overwhelming post-9/11 need for catharsis and reassurance and to look more critically at what was done for that purpose, including measures that pretend to be fixing something but really aren't.