The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone, or Why We Didn’t Stop the Nigerian Crotch Bomber

Harold Seidman, one of the country’s foremost experts on public administration, likened the quest for an effective coordinating agency as the equivalent to the medieval search for the philosopher’s stone – that mythical item that would solve all mankind’s problems.  As Seidman put it, reformers seeking to improve government performance consistently believe that, “If only we can find the right formula for coordination, we can reconcile the irreconcilable, harmonize competing and wholly divergent interests, overcome irrationalities in our government structures, and make hard policy choices for which no one disagrees.”  (The quote is from p. 142 of the 5th edition of Seidman’s wonderful book Politics, Position and Power).

I reminded my Bureaucracy students of Seidman’s quote when the story regarding the Nigerian “crotch-bomber” first broke.  Initial news reports – once the media moved past their preoccupation with Janet Napolitano’s unfortunate “you’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” moment – suggested that the near-miss by the Nigerian crotch bomber was the result of the failure of several agencies, including State, the CIA and the National Security Agency, to coordinate intelligence information.  It was, according to many critics, a reprise of the coordination failure that led to the 9-11 attack, which might have been prevented if only the CIA and FBI had shared information regarding the hijackers’ training.  Indeed, this was one of the conclusions of the 9-11 Commission and it drove their recommendation in 2004 to create an Office of  the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as the principal intelligence adviser to the President.  A few months latter Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation creating the DNI.  The idea was that by superimposing a new coordinating agency on top of the existing intelligence community, someone would finally be in the position to thread all the various intelligence coming from 16 different agencies through a common needle, thus preventing the mistakes that led to 9-11.

The creation of the DNI, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that reported to the DNI, is simply the latest manifestation of a recurring theme in American politics – one aptly captured in Seidman’s quotation – that if only government agencies could be made to work together, government performance would improve. This belief has produced an organizational trend through time in which more and more decisions are funneled upward toward presidential-level coordinating agencies headed by “czars” who often work directly for the president, and who are asked to coordinate the jobs of the various lower-level government departments and agencies.  Remarkably, there is very little evidence that this centralization of bureaucratic authority within the presidential level has led to more effective administration.  Indeed, there is much to suggest the opposite – that centralizing authority within the upper-levels of the executive branch rarely achieves effective coordination and often decreases the ability of the various lower-level agencies to carry out their mission.  The basic reason why coordinating agencies rarely work is that they almost never  have the authority to control an agency’s resources or to define its mission.  If agencies are to work together, they must share a common interest, or agree on the definition of their mission, or allow the coordinating agency to impose its own views on them.  Coordination is never a “neutral” process – as Seidman argues, to be effective it must reduce the autonomy of the agency being coordinated.  As a result, that agency tends to resist coordination, in the belief that it, as an operating agency, it is much better situated to perform its mission than is some top-level coordinating body.

The creation of the DNI is a case in point. Rather than coordinate the activities of the CIA, NSA and various other agencies, the Director, Dennis Blair, has often been battling these agencies regarding questions of turf and authority.  This battle has been particularly pronounced between Blair and the CIA under Leon Panetta, who has resisted efforts by the DNI to take control over the placement of CIA agents in foreign countries, among other issues.  Panetta argues, quite sensibly, that if it’s the CIA’s job to gather foreign intelligence, it must be allowed to train and place its own agents.  In the end, the Obama administration agreed with Panetta, in effect moving away from the 9-11 Commission’s recommendations to establish a strong DNI.

The media tends to report these battles as petty conflicts over turf.  But there is a deeper problem here, one that I am reminded of as more information regarding the crotch-bomber case has come to light.  By focusing on coordination, reformers create the false impression that most agency failures are the result of a lack of sharing of information.  But this is rarely the case.  Indeed, information sharing at the agency level in government goes on all the time, usually through informal networks at the operator level.  The problem behind intelligence failures is usually not a lack of information – it is a surfeit of information that tends to overwhelm analysts who are charged with separating the wheat from the increasingly numerous chaff.  Critics of the 9-11 Commission-inspired reforms argue that the terrorist attack didn’t reflect a lack of information sharing.  Indeed, George Tenet, in his memoirs, notes that the CIA knew an attack was coming but that his agency simply couldn’t isolate the key information in the blizzard of intelligence reports that were coming in.  More recently, in the case of the crotch bomber, it now appears that the problem again was not a lack of coordination. It was a failure by multiple agencies to act on clear warning signs within their own jurisdictions. Moreover, the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center may have made the problem worse.  When a State Department official was asked why they didn’t revoke the crotch bomber’s visa after the Nigerian’s father expressed concern about his son’s radicalization, he responded that it was up to the NCTC to ask them to revoke the visa.

There is an enduring lesson here. If not coordinating committees, then how should the intelligence process be reformed?  By giving the relevant intelligence agencies the autonomy, and the resources, to carry out their primary mission, and backing them when they make difficult choices that inevitably will involve a tradeoff of values – and holding them accountable when they fail.  Already we see that that, in the wake of the crotch bomber’s failed attempt, the Obama administration has reinstituted a country-specific watch system that is based on, in all but name, a policy of religious profiling.  It is essentially the same program that Attorney General Ashcroft implemented under the Bush administration, and which was severely criticized by civil rights organizations then and as it will almost certainly be criticized again.  By raising the watch level, of course, one also restricts the civil rights of many more people.  Inevitably, bureaucracies must make these tradeoffs.  The key question is how much autonomy they should have in making the decisions that determine how they carry out their missions.  Simply placing a coordinating agency on top of these agencies, but without giving it any real power, does little to resolve these difficult issues. But it does allow the operating agencies to pass the buck upward, to the coordinating agency.

So it is no surprise to me (or my Bureaucracy students, I hope!) that rather than a failure to coordinate, it appears (keeping in mind that this is all based on media reports) that the intelligence agencies had all the information they needed to prevent the crotch-bomber from getting on that plane, but they simply failed to act on the intelligence.  This should not surprise us.   It should be a reminder that rearranging the government organization chart often doesn’t address the root cause of many so-called coordination problems. Indeed the creation of coordinating agencies can create new problems.  In this case, the creation of the NCTC may have distanced those whose job it is to connect the dots from the people who are responsible from gathering the dots.  As a former CIA agent put it, “They’ve broken the link between the analytics and the people in the field.”   Want to help the CIA do a better job?  Empower CIA operatives to do their job, and hold them accountable when they don’t.  But don’t ask them to pass the buck up to a coordinating agency.

Coordinating committees, Seidman said, are the “crabgrass in government.”  Nobody wants them, but they proliferate.  The reason they proliferate is because they provide a plausible excuse for not making the hard policy choices that are usually at the root of a bureaucratic failure.  Before Obama took office I wrote that he would have an easier time in prosecuting the war on terror because most of the hard decisions had been resolved in the debate between President Bush, Congress and the courts.  For the most part, Obama simply had to inherit and implement the Bush policies.  It is a strategy that he has largely followed, and when he has not – as with closing Gitmo, or deciding to try some terrorists in civil courts, he has had to expend huge amounts of political capital.

In some instances, however, he will have to make hard choices put off  during the Bush years. Expecting coordinating agencies, in the form of the DNI, to solve bureaucratic failures, is one of them.  The sooner Obama understands that there is no philosopher’s stone – that there are only difficult choices that require trading off core values – the better off we will all be.

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