Critique of the 9/11 Commission Report
The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission criticizes intelligence and law enforcement agencies under both the Clinton and Bush administrations for a lack of imagination, but it also exhibits a lack of imagination, and neglects to candidly examine what security might be attainable with the best efforts we could make.
There is a management problem with the conveyance of information from the lowest levels to the top. An intelligence organization can have good data and excellent analysis, but lose the benefit of that in the ways information is reported up the chain of command.
I like to explain the problem by citing an anecdote from my experience as a computer programmer. I once worked for a client in Sacramento, California, called The Money Store, which dealt in mortgage loans. It had only four echelons from the workers to the CEO, but rather than upper management taking the time to visit the workers, they tasked them with filing written reports each week, on the work they had done that week. A few weeks after asking for those reports, the word came down that instead of reporting on what we had done the previous week, we were to report on what we were going to do the next week, as though we had already done it. It was explained that the reason for this was that as the reports were passed up the chain of command, it took a week for each level to summarize what had been done by the level below it, so that each level was actually reporting on what had been done two weeks previously at the next lower level. The result was that the information the top echelon below the CEO had about the activities of the organization was six weeks old, too old to make intelligent decisions. By assuming most workers could predict what they would get done the following week, it was hoped that upper management would then be able to make decisions on the basis of information that was only three weeks out of date.
Needless to say, reports of future work were garbage. In most organizations, work consists largely in dealing with unanticipated and unpredictable developments. Presuming that the predictions could take the place of reports on what had actually gotten done was worse than the delay in getting more accurate information.
The interesting thing is that this policy continued for many weeks, and was still the policy when my contract ended. I don't know why it took so long to figure out the policy was disastrous, something I reported myself in a memo, but suffice it to say that the company went out of business within a year thereafter.
Bureaucracies in general, and intelligence agencies in particular, have a fundamental problem with passing actionable information up the chain of command. It tends to get summarized, filtered and distorted in ways that defeat the mission of the organization.
Consider the path of information leading up to the PDB, the "President's Daily Brief", which are generally only about two pages. How is a president supposed to be able to make intelligent decisions on "intelligence" reduced in that way? Perhaps if he only had to make one decision a day, but if the daily situations require hundreds or thousands of decisions at his level, we have a throughput problem.
One of the kinds of computer program I used to write were what are sometimes called "executive information systems" (EIS). The program gathers and summarily reports data from the operations of the company, and presents it to upper management in easily understood ways, accommodating to their intellectual limitations, as any management tool must. But it was not just a summary, because it permitted the executive to click on details, down to the level of raw data. The EIS is not a substitute for detail, but a gateway to it, and a good executive will drill down to information at lower levels of operation to find out what decisions need to be made at upper levels.
If there is any executive that is in desperate need of a good EIS, it is the President of the United States. He also needs to be a speedreader and to devote a lot more time each day to acquiring information than he can get by reading a PDB.
Of course, there is also a problem with reporting only consensus instead of "red teaming" -- reporting dissident or opposing positions and arguments. All bureaucracies are susceptible to groupthink, and it takes a special effort, and an initiative from the top, to overcome it.
There is also a tendency to reject information that is not internally generated. I remember an occasion when I had an analysis I thought the CIA should have, so I offered to send it to them. The person I spoke to demanded that I not send it to them, no matter what the merits of it might be. Unless it was obtained at their initiative, they weren't interested. It didn't matter that several academic colleagues thought it was brilliant and important, and were prepared to recommend it. However, someone who was interested, and spent some time trying to understand it, was someone I suspected of being a Soviet agent. I concluded that the best way to get an original analysis through to the CIA was by passing it through the KGB or GRU. (I am told by a former Soviet intelligence agent that they had a similar problem, and that the best way to get original analysis to Soviet agencies was through the U.S. intelligence agencies.)
Now I have known some analysts in intelligence agencies, and they are a mixed bag. Some are fairly imaginative, but most are not, and the imaginative ones tend to be ignored more often than the unimaginative ones are. The fundamental problem is that for imaginative ideas to be assimilated by higher echelons, those higher echelons need some imagination themselves, and one doesn't rise in such organizations by being imaginative.
It has been suggested that the agencies make more use of outside consultants, such as assembling teams of science fiction writers, to come up with "high concept" threats that might require a defensive response, but there is little sign that any ideas such teams might come up with would survive the bureaucratic ladder.
There is also the issue of time. There is a credible threat that al Qaeda already has nukes in place in American cities, but the Commission Report did not address reforms that could be implemented in much less than a decade. By the time Congress could act on their recommendations, the Capitol is likely to have become a mushroom cloud.
Also missing from the Report is a candid assessment of how much security might be attainable with the maximum effort that might be made. therefore, I will attempt to do that in this article.
Let us consider only threats of actions that might kill 1000 or more persons on the territory of the United States, conducted by enemies of at least the level of preparation of al Qaeda. What are the odds of success of defensive measures in place before 9/11, today, and attainable in the future, given our actual and potential for infiltrating the actual enemy operations?
This is just a guess, but I would estimate that before 9/11 we had at most a 5% chance of stopping such attacks through action of government agents, that today we have at most a 10% chance, and in the future we might have, at most, a 20% chance. There is no way we will ever be able to achieve a 90% chance of stopping them, or anything close to it. That means that if al Qaeda has six or seven nukes in place in American cities already, as has been reported, then even with maximum potential future levels of protection, we might only be able to stop one or two of them from being detonated, and at present levels, we probably won't be able to stop any of them from going off.
Is there any alternative to defensive actions by government agents? Yes. On 9/11 there was something that worked -- the passengers aboard Flight 93 -- who constituted themselves a militia for the occasion and responded to end the threat, albeit it at the cost of their lives. It wasn't government agents that succeeded in protecting the U.S. Capitol, the apparent target, but citizens functioning as militia. The success score: Militia 25%, government zero.
The Commission failed utterly to recommend the one thing that might prevent the loss of seven cities and as many as 15 million people and the survival of our economy and that of the world. That one thing is to mobilize the traditional, constitutional, militia. The President needs to issue a nationwide call-up to the entire citizenry of the United States to muster, organize, train, and equip themselves to meet the threat, and to engage in a search of every inch of the surface of the United States, and every cave, basement, hole, or other hiding place. They need to know how to identify a threat, and how to disarm it themselves, because there may not be time to call in a team from the DOE or DOD.
The FBI has lately been making some half-hearted efforts to recruit citizens for defensive roles, but the only thing their limited imaginations seem to contemplate is an extension of their informant network. This situation does not need a flood of tips inundating federal agencies where they will just be ignored anyway. All that would do is threaten civil liberties, and it would be doing to ourselves what we would go to war about if it were done to us by a foreign actor. We need competent militia in the field capable of dealing with most situations locally, that bring in more capable personnel only if they encounter a situation they absolutely can't handle.
This solution runs up against the aversion of the Establishment to revival of the militia, because ordinary citizens, unlike government agents, when asked to take an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic", are afraid the citizens might actually read and understand the Constitution, and begin to perceive that those "domestic enemies" look a lot like them. There is a reason why the Establishment has been working so hard to suppress the revival of militia, since the Dick Act of 1903 that was intended to end the tradition. The Establishment has good reason to fear the militia, but today it has more to fear from threats like al Qaeda armed with weapons of mass destruction, and it had better make a choice quickly, because those nukes may go off this year.
But we also have to be realistic about what even a revived militia can do, especially in less than a year. If there are seven nukes in place, it might find six, and prevent five from going off. Since five are thought to be 100 kiloton devices, each capable of killing several million people, that could make an enormous difference, especially for those people and their families, and would be well worth the time, trouble, and expense of reviving the militia as an institution. It would be a little late to call up the militia after the mushroom clouds go up, although that would have to be done, and the result would be chaos.
But it is not just the lives of those people in the affected cities that are at risk. Few people have thought through what would happen after such an attack, one perpetrated by a stateless organization, but operating from countries that have arguably harbored them, and perhaps only through negligence, allowed them to come into possession of the weapons. If several cities are lost to nuclear attacks, the President will have little choice but to annihilate every country, and every people, that might possibly have contributed to the attack, even unknowingly. It would not be retaliation in the classic result of a failure to deter, but an attempt to eliminate the threat in the only way we have the means to do, and that is to wipe out the entire populations of whole countries, not only those listed as being among the "Axis of Evil". It is not apparent that those and other countries got the message that all of them will be attacked if the U.S. is hit, and that any weapons they think they have will be no deterrent against such retaliation. The attack may very well include Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and other countries that, while they don't want the U.S. attacked, are complicit merely by having nuclear technology that is susceptible to being diverted into weapons that have been used against us. Even Britain and France might be ordered to end all nuclear activities and turn over all nuclear materials to the United States, or face annihilation. Once nukes are used against the United States, the world as we know it will end, not just for the United States, but for people everywhere. The result could be the death of billions.
Al Qaeda envisions an ideal world in which the only inhabitants are poor farmers and herdsmen, devout because there is no possibility of the kind of wealth that has corrupted humanity during the last 200 years, and no relief from their suffering but hope for an afterlife. That vision may indeed be fulfilled.
Books on this topic:
(Click on the green A to order.)
A Nuclear Terrorism : The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison, Times Books, 2004.
A Osamas Revenge: THE NEXT 9/11 : What the Media and the Government Haven't Told You, by Paul L. Williams, Prometheus Books, 2004.
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