The Buck Stops Where?: Assessing Blame in the Crotch Bomber Incident

The release of partially declassified documents pertaining to the crotch-bomber incident lends support to my claim that, contrary to initial news reports, the failure to prevent the incident was not caused by a lack of information sharing among government agencies.  Instead, the primary culprit was a failure of individual agencies to act on the information they had that clearly should have set off alarm bells.  Consider the most significant findings according to the declassified report:

• The U.S. Government had sufficient information prior to the attempted December 25 attack to have potentially disrupted the AQAP plot-i.e., by identifying Mr. Abdulmutallab as a likely operative of AQAP and potentially preventing him fromboarding flight 253.

• The Intelligence Community leadership did not increase analytic resources working on the full AQAP threat.

• The watchlisting system is not broken but needs to be strengthened and improved, as evidenced by the failure to add Mr. Abdulmutallab to the No Fly watchlist.

• A reorganization of the intelligence or broader counterterrorism community is not required to address problems that surfaced in the review, a fact made clear by countless other successful efforts to thwart ongoing plots.

In releasing these documents, Obama stepped forward, as all presidents must do after these incidents, to assume full responsibility for the failure to stop the crotch bomber. “The buck stops here,” he solemnly proclaimed. This well-meaning and politically safe response was intended in part to diffuse the inevitable fingerpointing and calls for heads to roll that always occur in the aftermath of a perceived bureaucratic failure. But Obama’s mea culpa, politically well intentioned as it is, perpetuates the myth that the president is solely responsible for managing the intelligence bureaucracy.  And the limited reforms announced so far – particularly item 4 above -  indicate that Obama doesn’t yet grasp the root cause of the intelligence failure and that if real intelligence reform is to happen, it will have to come from Congress.  Let me address both points.

The notion that the President is solely or even primarily responsible for managing the bureaucracy is nonsense, of course. Under our system of shared powers, Congress, through its budgetary and other legislative powers, plays a greater role than the president in designing and managing the national bureaucracy, including those agencies responsible for counterterrorism, and it is Congress that shoulders much of the blame for the failure to institute effective reforms after the 9-11 incident. And by Congress I mean both Republicans and Democrats; the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that created the DNI and the National Counterterrorism Center passed the Senate with only two Senators opposed, and the House with only 75 nay votes. Most of that opposition came from conservative Republicans who opposed what they saw as an attempt to strip the military of control over battlefield intelligence.  Although President Bush had initially sought reform by strengthening the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s power to coordinate intelligence, his hand was forced by the political momentum engendered by the 9-11 Commission report and, in the end, he also supported the 2004 reforms that created the DNI and NCTC.

In defense of Congress, I should say that what they voted for and what has developed in the ensuing five years is not necessarily the same thing. Both Democrat Representative Jane Harman and Republican Representative Peter Hoekstra, two of the major architects of the 2004 legislation (along with senators Sue Collins and Joe Lieberman) were already complaining by the end of the second Bush term that the DNI’s office had morphed into something far different than what they had intended when they passed the reform legislation. Here’s what both representatives had to say about intelligence reform during a 2008 appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations:

HARMAN: “I think its implementation has been mixed. There’s much more of a bureaucracy there than we intended. We intended this as a joint command structure modeled after Goldwater-Nichols [she’s referring to 1986 legislation that overhauled the Joint Chief of Staffs decisionmaking process], with a strong leader who would break down stovepipes, force 16 different personnel systems and cultures to work together. And in some ways it’s worked well; in some ways it hasn’t.”

HOEKSTRA: “And I don’t think we’ve gotten the leadership in moving the direction that we wanted to go. We saw a strong leadership. We saw a lean DNI. And the DNI has gotten much bigger than what I think Jane and I and Susan and Joe ever expected it to be.

It has also moved into taking on more of the functions of the intelligence community and moving them out of the different agencies, moving them into the office of the DNI, which is what we really never envisioned except for some key critical areas. And there are some more of those responsibilities, which dilutes the capability of the DNI to focus on strategic direction… I think the other thing that we were really looking at is we were looking at strategic direction and speed.

The intel community was — and we quite frankly talk about, you know, the intel community in the ’70s and ’80s, and the paradigm was you need to be one step faster than the former Soviet Union… And what you now need is you need to be as quick or faster than al Qaeda and these different types of organizations, which are learning organizations. They are adapting organizations. They’re working in real time, and we’re still working in a bureaucratic model.

And so the amount of transformation that we saw was necessary. We are not anywhere close to getting to that type of transformation. I mean, the decision-making process that goes on through the ODNI — and I think this is one of my big disappointments of the current model — is we’ve added another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of decision-making, which is what we never — we intended the DNI to strip out the organization and streamline decision-making, and really they’ve just become another layer of bureaucracy that reviews the decisions that have been made before. And, you know, the process has just not gotten to where it is (a quick one ?).”

So even before Obama took office there was clear evidence that the office of the DNI had morphed into an additional bureaucratic layer that tended to stifle the flow of intelligence, rather than speed its analysis. Obama inherited a dysfunctional system and there’s no evidence, based on the reforms mentioned so far, that he comprehends this.  Genuine anger in response to the intelligence failure is no substitute for understanding why it occurred.  In Obama’s defense, however, and as I have noted in previous posts, he is among the least experienced administrators among modern presidents; that is, few have taken office with less exposure to how the national bureaucracy works than Obama.  I think it is asking a lot to expect him to grasp, one year into his term, the intricacies of the intelligence community.  His lack of administrative experience has been compounded, I think, by a tendency in foreign affairs to follow the lead of his advisers and to adopt incremental policy changes at best, something we saw in the Afghanistan troop escalation decision and which appears to be happening in the aftermath of the Christmas bombing attempt.  When it comes to intelligence reform, however, that advice often reflects the interests of the current intelligence operatives, who often are more interested in protecting their agency’s autonomy than they are in ceding authority to, or working with, another agency.  One year into his presidency, it appears that Obama is not sufficiently confident or experienced to push for real reform.

That may change in time as Obama gains experience and confidence in his role as chief executive. In the short term, however, Obama can proclaim to the heavens above that the bucks stop with him.  But the reality is that reform of the intelligence bureaucracy is more likely to come from Congress. Whether Congress can overcome its institutional and partisan divisions, however – particularly on the eve of the midterm elections – remains an open question.  History suggests that Congress engages in sustained efforts to reform the bureaucracy only in the aftermath of a crisis, such as 9-11. Whether the failed crotch bombing is enough to galvanize it to act remains an open question.  My guess is that it won’t.  If so, our security against further terrorists attacks depends on the ability of the intelligence community to fulfill their missions despite operating in a less-than-optimal organizational setup, one that unnecessarily impedes the flow and analysis of intelligence and which does not encourage risk-taking by individual agencies.

ADDENDUM:  The New York Times posted an editorial yesterday that began this way: “President Obama was right to take responsibility for the near-catastrophic Christmas Day terrorist plot. The buck, as always, must stop with the president.”  This misinformation helps perpetuate the myth that presidents control the bureaucracy and that they must take full responsibility when things go wrong.  But you can see why it is difficult for presidents to do anything but fall neatly in lockstep with the prevailing misconception.

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