There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spying Blind on the bus

Finished Amy B. Zegart's "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11," a textbook, literally, on the failure of America's intelligence bureaucracy and, more troubling, its continuing inability to adapt to the demands of fighting terrorism.

"For the first time in history, great power does not bring security," Zegart writes. "It is now the weak who threaten the strong. And it is intelligence, not military might, which provides the first and last line of defense."

In Zegart's sparse textbook style -- explain what will be said, say it and then summarize what was said -- the reader is led step by step to an appreciation of the structural deficiencies that cripple government efforts to protect the nation in a post-Cold War world. It is no wonder, then, that it was not a systematic counterterrorism effort but a conscientious border customs inspector in 1999 who foiled the Millennium plot to explode a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport.

"The single most important reason the United States remained so vulnerable on September 11 was not the McDonald's wages paid to airport security workers, the Clinton administration's inability to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, or the Bush administration's failure to place terrorism higher on its priority list," Zegart explains. "It was the stunning inability of U.S. intelligence agencies to adapt to the end of the Cold War."

Zegart's book underlines what Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin explained in "Curveball," his tale of the intelligence failures that surrounded America's invasion of Iraq. It's an institutional culture in the intelligence community that hobbles the efforts of good people to do their jobs. These are the same institutional faults described in "Charlie Wilson's War" by George Crile, especially during CIA agent Gust Avrakotos' internal exile, when he used the anonymity of the need-to-know compartmentalization inside the agency to hide from superiors he had angered.

"Government agencies are not built to change with the times," Zegart writes. "Because reform does not generally arise from within, it must be imposed from the outside. But even this rarely happens because all organizational changes, even the best reforms, create winners and losers, and because the political system allows losers multiple opportunities to keep winners from winning completely. Indeed, the greater the proposed change, the stronger the resistance will be. As a result, organizational adaption almost always meets with defeat, becomes watered down, or gets shelved for another day, when the next crisis erupts."

What I found surprising -- but I should not have been surprised by -- was the role the Defense Department played in thwarting intelligence reform efforts both prior to and after 9/11. In 1991, under the first President Bush, Congress devised a radical restructuring of the intelligence community that would have placed it under a powerful new director of national intelligence. Then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney played the "reducing the effectiveness of intelligence support to our war-fighting commanders" trump card and scuttled the effort. This is the same card future-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would play after 9/11, seriously undermining efforts to fix what study after study found to be the problems with America's intelligence community.

For anyone with an interest in government, who wants to know why it works the way it does, this is a must-read book.

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