America

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Those Intelligence Reforms

Patterico has a short post on the lousy PR performance of the GOP in which the conservative side always seems to be blamed for anything bad - the example he uses involves the press assigning responsibility to the Republicans for the government shutdown some years ago. His main point is focused on the Intelligence Bill that the 9/11 Commission is trying to drive through Congress and how, once again, the "blame" for its failure to gain quick passage is being laid on a couple of GOP congressmen.

I agree with him that the Republicans do a lousy job of being proactive in what should easily portrayed (because it's true) as a principled stand against rushing into law "reforms" that may, in fact, make matters worse.

Patterico cites to Cori Dauber's posting which correctly states:
The way the stall on the intelligence reform bill is being reported is really quite striking. Essentially it's all being put on two Republicans, Rep. Hunter, and Rep. Sensenbrenner, and by far Hunter is getting off with the lighter treatment of the two here, since he's being portrayed as wrong-headed (perhaps even as a tool of the Pentagon in its defense of turf), but since his motivation is generally explained as rooted in the fact that his son has served in Iraq, and therefore he wants to protect the troops (what, no one else does?) he's just a tool. Sensenbrenner's argument is never explained, nor is his motivation.
... And now, of course, the 9/11 Commissioners have gotten back in the game. These guys play for keeps when it comes to political rhetoric, and they just aren't going to let some congressman get in the way of a bill based on their recommendations. As before, the commissioners seem interested primarily in structuring their rhetoric in such a way as to preclude debate: if you are interested in debate you are interested in unconscionable delay in a self-evidently good bill: standing in the way not just of progress but of defending the American people.
One of the comments to this piece quotes from Judge Richard Posner's review of the 9/11 Commission report from the New York Times
Much more troublesome are the inclusion in the report of recommendations (rather than just investigative findings) and the commissioners' misplaced, though successful, quest for unanimity. Combining an investigation of the attacks with proposals for preventing future attacks is the same mistake as combining intelligence with policy. The way a problem is described is bound to influence the choice of how to solve it. The commission's contention that our intelligence structure is unsound predisposed it to blame the structure for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, whether it did or not...

At least the commission was consistent. It believes in centralizing intelligence, and people who prefer centralized, pyramidal governance structures to diversity and competition deprecate dissent. But insistence on unanimity, like central planning, deprives decision makers of a full range of alternatives...

The tale of how we were surprised by the 9/11 attacks is a product of hindsight; it could not be otherwise. And with the aid of hindsight it is easy to identify missed opportunities (though fewer than had been suspected) to have prevented the attacks, and tempting to leap from that observation to the conclusion that the failure to prevent them was the result not of bad luck, the enemy's skill and ingenuity or the difficulty of defending against suicide attacks or protecting an almost infinite array of potential targets, but of systemic failures in the nation's intelligence and security apparatus that can be corrected by changing the apparatus.

That is the leap the commission makes, and it is not sustained by the report's narrative. The narrative points to something different, banal and deeply disturbing: that it is almost impossible to take effective action to prevent something that hasn't occurred previously. Once the 9/11 attacks did occur, measures were taken that have reduced the likelihood of a recurrence. But before the attacks, it was psychologically and politically impossible to take those measures...


After Pearl Harbor, in typical American fashion, the search was made to, as we used to say in the Navy, "identify the guilty and punish the innocent." The two innocents punished, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, were at the end of the information chain farthest from the intelligence czars of their day. I saw recently that 60+ years later, Congress has finally
undertaken to exonerate these men. See here for a short history of the Kimmel and Short story (and another argument as to why we shouldn't rush to implement changes post-9/11).

Conservatism is defined by me as a reluctance to make changes unless and until the need has been clearly identified. Someone has to be in charge of worrying about consequences of passing such a bill, whether those consequences be intended or unintended. Now, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has raised some concerns about the consequences of taking away his intelligence assets and assigning them to some "czar." This has been portrayed by some as "money and power" issue, but I know the end users of intel would like to have what they want when they want it and not have to submit a request in triplicate that another agency gets to prioritize.

That there may be a tremendous amount of seeming redundancy in the current structure bothers me not at all. The intelligence gathered by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and Navy, Army and Air Force intelligence all have different focuses. I have seen no evidence that the existence of these perhaps parallel systems played any role in 9/11.

Instead, everything I have read and seen points to a problem of coordination between information gathered by the FBI and the CIA. In fact, our intelligence was pretty good - it just never got connected. Some of this problem was caused by an artificial "wall" between them as far as the sharing of domestic and foreign intelligence. The "cure" of the 9/11 Commission may address that issue but it may also cause more harm. It's time to ignore the 9/11 commissioners and take a hard look at what this bill might really do.

I note that the Wall Street Journal has a piece on its editorial page (11/30/04) by John Lehman and Bob Kerrey, "Safety in Intelligence." (available on the web to subscribers only). These gentlemen attempt to make the case that military commanders ought to be happy with the new bill for 3 reasons:
(1) they'll get even better tactical intelligence because the current "balkanized and stovepiped structure" will be streamlined when "a single authority able to focus the unified efforts of our entire intelligence community upon the most urgent needs of combatant commanders and civilian decision makers;"
(2) the bill "ensures that the person responsible for national intelligence will have the authority to do the job," and
(3) with better intelligence available to the civilian authority, it will be "less likely that our armed forces will need to be sent into armed conflict. Good intelligence can prevent wars in the first place. And the best war is the one that a strong military, capable diplomats and timely intelligence have made unnecessary."

I'm not a senior military commander but I am not impressed with this. A "single authority" can also decide that you don't need what you ask for, or as in the case of Kimmel and Short, decide to keep information from you and still not be held accountable when your mission goe awry because of it. No. More study is needed.

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