War Stories

Reinventing Counterterrorism

More lessons from the 9/11 warnings scandal.

The first wave of media and political response to the 9/11 warning scandal has focused on particular lapses—which government agency didn’t do what when, which bureaucrat should get the ax. But the more pressing question is what’s really wrong with the government agencies that produced this mess.

It’s been a while since influential people in the government have been emphasizing questions like that. Since the early ‘90s, to be exact, when a book called Reinventing Government, by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler,was the toast of the wonkiteriat. The authors argued that government bureaucracies—typically staid, centralized, and wasteful—could be improved by emulating private sector entrepreneurs, who tend to emphasize responsiveness, decentralization, and organizational leanness. Osborne and Gaebler quite reasonably argued, for instance, that the best public organizations focus more on the big picture than on specific line items, more on preventing problems than curing them, more on outcomes than process. They give their employees as much leeway as possible. They also invite outsiders to participate in their mission. Isn’t it obvious by now that all the organizations in the 9/11 mess—the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Council, et al.—utterly failed to embody these characteristics?

To wit: When the Phoenix FBI office stopped developing Middle Eastern informants for budgetary reasons, it was thinking too much about line items and not enough about the Bureau’s major objectives. The CIA displayed a similar myopia when it failed to tell the FBI about the movements of terror suspects. When FBI HQ quashed attempts by the Phoenix and Minneapolis field offices to pursue terror leads, it was downplaying prevention and being too centralized. And the counterterror folks in government clearly didn’t mine their potential nongovernment resources at flight schools or airlines.

The congressional investigators and others who will, in the months ahead, sift through 9/11’s bureaucratic debris would do well to think hard about how to get the counterterror organizations to start acting more in accord with Osborne and Gaebler’s ideas. Readers are invited to think about this too, and to submit their suggestions to “The Fray.” Here are a few of mine:

  • Encourage lateral communication. When a state police officer needs some information about a crime, it would be absurd for him to first have to get permission from the governor in order to talk to a city cop. It’s similarly absurd for the FBI, CIA, and other relevant agencies to require their agents to get approval from HQ before reaching out to their peers in the field. (According to the reforms recently announced by FBI Director Robert Mueller, there will be more coordination between the Bureau and the CIA—but in Washington. Contacts between street agents and local CIA agents that are not explicitly approved by FBI HQ in Washington are still frowned upon.)

  • Be flexible about vertical communication. Following the particular links of the internal chain of command is useful but shouldn’t be ironclad. If a field agent feels that his supervisor isn’t sufficiently responsive to a request or memo, he should be encouraged to jump the chain—even several links all the way to HQ—if he feels it’s urgent enough. Coleen Rowley shouldn’t have felt the need to wait 10 months to send her red-flag letter directly to the director of the FBI. And the Whistleblower Protection Act should be extended to cover all employees of all agencies involved in counterterrorism.

  • Encourage meta-bureaucratic thinking. It’s become obvious that a big part of the problem is that there’s an FBI way of doing things and a CIA way of doing things—and often one of them is completely wrong. As one CIA source told The New Yorker’sSeymour Hersh recently, at the FBI they spend their career trying to catch bank robbers, and at the CIA they spend it trying to rob banks. But the agencies ought to breed employees who can move fluidly between such perspectives. One way to do that would be to have lots of agents serve multi-year exchange tours at the other agencies with a stake in counterterror. (The military branches have benefited from just such a program, where, for example, a Marine aviator does a tour with an Air Force squadron.) And such tours should count as a plus when it comes to pay and promotion.
  • There has to be one person who receives all intelligence. Even though we now have an Office of Homeland Security, and no matter how many new flying counterterror squads the FBI creates, and even if we create a new domestic CIA, we are still left with the scandal’s left-hand/right-hand problem. This can only be corrected by re-establishing the idea that there is someone in the intelligence world who literally is cc’d on all intel matters, period. I say re-established because the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, clearly envisioned this role—and assigned it to the CIA’s director. That statute didn’t just make him the head of that particular agency, it also put him in charge of synthesizing and coordinating the intelligence provided by all other intel arms of the government, such as those belonging to the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Agency. It’s time to put everybody in the intel world on notice that the CIA director’s got that job again.