Why The Dots Won't Connect

Obama hasn't fired anybody.

It's become painfully obvious that our multi-billion dollar intelligence agencies are not sharing information well.  We had enough dots to know about the panty bomber in advance, but nobody could connect the dots because they weren't being shared.  The New York Times' credentials as an unshakable Obama fan are sufficiently well established that we can assume that they're correct in their unflattering description of the Obama Administration's intelligence failures that led up to the Fort Hood massacre and to the nearly-successful attempt to bring down Northwest flight 235:

While on vacation he [President Obama] was given an 80-page review of the Fort Hood shooting; it looked at how information about Hasan was not well circulated within the federal government. The night after his first statement, the president's advisers learned that something similar happened in the Detroit case: the government possessed National Security Agency-intercepted conversations that could have helped to stop Abdulmutallab if they had been shared widely. [emphasis added]

The Times described two successive failures to properly use information we'd gathered at considerable cost.  In trying to make the best of a bad situation, the Times pointed out that Mr. Obama and parts of his administration appear to be taking jihadis a bit more seriously than in the past:

After the Christmas Day plot, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, consciously or not, used the term "war on terror." The White House then dispatched Brennan for a blitz of four Sunday shows, the first such foray for the C.I.A. veteran.

Obama made almost as many statements about terrorism in the two weeks following Christmas as he did in the 11 months preceding it, not counting those focused on Afghanistan. "Our nation is at war," Obama declared on Jan. 2. "We are at war," he said five days later as he released reports on the Detroit plot.  [emphasis added]

Although we disagree with Mr. Obama's use of the word "war" because it suggests that terrorists constitute a legitimate national government, we're gratified to hear that our President may have finally realized that talking nice to suicide bombers won't make them stop.

The Times reports that Mr. Obama knows that his subordinates are not sharing information as they've been directed to do.  If he truly understands that particular problem, well and good, but he's got his work cut out for him in changing the culture of many, many entrenched bureaucracies who've seen countless presidents and presidential appointees come and go.

Why the Dots Won't Connect

We at Scragged have some background concerning the deeply-rooted historical reasons why the CIA in particular is reluctant to share information.  Back in the day, "CIA" stood for "Central Intelligence Agency."  The CIA saw its role as standing in the center of the intelligence gathering system, analyzing all information from lesser agencies and preparing a daily briefing for the President of the United States, somewhat like the Director of National Intelligence is supposed to do today.

The CIA collected information from other agencies; it didn't share with them.  Being asked to share data so that someone else can brief the President is a major come-down.

If you're in government, the most precious currency of power is face-time with the President.  Being able to get your phone calls returned by mere senators and representatives is nothing to be sneezed at, of course, but can't compare with the joys of being able to get calls returned from the Oval Office.

If you can't get to the President directly, you have to influence someone who can.  This makes it far harder to put your point of view across, because the person you're influencing always has a different agenda and may or may not pass on your views as you intended.  Preserving Presidential access at all costs is the most important job for the directory of the CIA, or for the director of any other government agency.

Long, long ago, there was a reorganization after which the head of the CIA was supposedly given the power to direct many of the other intelligence agencies, much to their chagrin and to the CIA director's delight.  He ordered that any security clearance granted by any of the agencies was to be recognized by all the other agencies.

At the time, each agency had its own system for keeping track of who had clearance and who hadn't.  This caused a great deal of paper shuffling whenever any member of any agency had to visit another agency.  While this provided employment in the various security offices, it wasted huge amounts of time as intelligence officers visited back and forth.  The sheer bureaucratic effort of being permitted to visit another agency made information sharing almost impossible.

One of our friends was a member of a delegation from one of the agencies to a meeting at CIA headquarters.  When they arrived, the CIA gate guard had no notion of their clearances.  The entire group waited nearly an hour while the officer retrieved their clearances and admitted them to the sacred precincts.

That was light-years better than the system we had when I worked for a classified defense program years before.  In my day, sharing clearances took days or weeks and an hour would have been regarded as impossible.

When the meeting finally started, our friend challenged the director, asking if he had indeed sent out the memo directing that clearances be shared.  The director did a slow burn and returned to the business at hand without making any response to the question.

Had he cared whether his directives were being followed, the director could have paused the meeting, taken my friend downstairs, and chewed out the gate guard.  If my friend had exaggerated, he could have fired him on the spot.  If the gate guard turned out to be the culprit, the guard could have been fired instead.  The director did neither.

Preserving his face time with the President so that he could complain about his need for more resources was far more important to the director than spending any effort on the dirty details of actually administering his command, which was why the director did nothing.

It's Not What You Expect, It's What You Inspect

Every parent knows that if you tell a child to clean a room, nothing will happen unless the child has learned through unpleasant experience that you'll check up and that further unpleasantness will ensue if the room isn't cleaned.  Parents also learn that kids are pretty good at faking compliance without actually doing any cleaning.

Similarly, bureaucrats operate just as they please regardless of whatever directives come down from on high unless they see very unpleasant things happening to colleagues who disobey.  The only thing that energizes a bureaucracy is the whisper of the axe, which is why Confucius advised the emperor to chop heads off disobedient bureaucrats to encourage the survivors to get with his programs.

Unless Mr. Obama chops a significant number of heads, none of the agencies will share information over the long term.  If he yells loud enough, they may share unimportant tidbits for a short time, but if it's "Just words... just speeches." as Rev. Jeremiah Wright put it, they'll get back to business as usual as soon as he loses interest in managing the executive and gets back to politics, his first love.

They'll revert to secrecy because intelligence bureaucrats know that the only way to be noticed is to get credit for finding out something of importance.  If you collect a neat tidbit and pass it on, someone in another agency may use your tidbit to get a promotion, a fate worse than death.  If, however, you hold on to it, you might be able to fit it together with something some sucker in another agency gives you so that you can ride to glory.

Civilians could be forgiven for calling this the "James Bond syndrome" - every intel bureaucrat dreams of being given a license to kill other bureaucrats.  Preserving presidential face-time, and thus presidential influence, is job one, two, three, and four; keeping other bureaucrats from doing the same is jobs five through eight.  Actually running the agency comes far down the list if at all.

This is particularly true of Leon Panetta, the current head of the CIA.  Prior to his appointment, he had no experience whatsoever of intelligence organizations, their management, purpose, function, limitations, or capabilities.  He was appointed solely on his political connections to Mr. Obama and confirmed, albeit reluctantly, by a Democratic majority basking in the glow of Mr. Obama's then-stratospheric approval ratings.

Knowing little or nothing of how the CIA operates, Mr. Panetta has about as much chance of affecting internal operations as Genghis Khan had of learning how to read enough Chinese to affect the bureaucracy after he conquered China.  Just as the Khan, mighty though he appeared to be, couldn't get anything done without the help of Chinese insiders who understood the bureaucracy, Mr. Panetta is at the mercy of CIA insiders who understand the agency well enough to help him if they so choose, or to do otherwise should they prefer their agendas to his.

To Lead or Not To Lead, That is the Question

Even the most Obama-friendly media have noted that he's running a perpetual campaign instead of governing the country.  It's only human for Mr. Obama to stick with what he's good at, so he's made more speeches in a year than most Presidents ever make.

Unfortunately, speeches alone do not constitute leadership.  A leader may use speeches to tell the troops where he and they are going, but after the teleprompter's put away, he's got to roll up his sleeves, grab a shovel, and dig down to the muck and the mire where the action is.  The Times points out that he, or rather we, have problems from top to bottom:

Just as lower-level counterterrorism analysts failed to stitch together the pieces of information that would have alerted them to the possibility of a suicide bomber aboard a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas, top national security officials failed to fully appreciate mounting evidence of the dangers beyond the Arabian Peninsula posed by extremists linked to Yemen.

Mr. Obama this month presented his government's findings on how the plot went undetected. But a detailed review of the episode by The New York Times, including more than two dozen interviews with White House and American intelligence officials and with counterterrorism officials in Europe and Yemen, shows that there were far more warning signs than the administration has acknowledged. [emphasis added]

The first step in solving a problem is to realize how bad things are.  The only way Genghis Khan could control the Chinese bureaucracy was to find some external way to check up on his bureaucrats and kill whomever lied or disobeyed.

Having appointed a politician instead of someone who knows the agency, the only way Mr. Obama can tell whether the CIA is actually sharing data is to wait for terrorists to demonstrate that they aren't.  Then he can either continue to make speeches about how upset he is or he can wade in and fire the uncooperative as spectacularly as possible.

That's how we'll know if the dots have any chance of ever being connected.  Mr. Obama can rail about information sharing all he likes and nothing will change.  If, however, he decides to take time out from politicking and get deeply involved in the down-and-dirty details of governance, there'll be a goodly number of public firings at the CIA, the National Center for Intelligence, and all the other alphabet soup agencies.

If Mr. Obama spends enough time firing miscreants for the rank and file to believe that the President is serious enough about information sharing to fire them, they'll share.  If he doesn't threaten their survival, they won't because sharing cuts their chances for promotion.

The dots will never connect unless heads roll.

We'll know which way it'll be as we read about firings in the papers, or we don't.  We'd advise Mr. Obama to start lopping heads any day now.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Basically sound observations. There unfortunately is a lot of competitive thinking and behavior among the management and employees in federal agencies within DoD. Many investigators complain that they work their tails off putting together a case, which then the FBI or another agency steps in, coopts the case and the work and then takes credit for all of it, usually without noting the months or sometimes years of work done by an investigator in the initial agency. This does not help solve the problem.

Another problem is that there is a segment of people within our government, who are running their own game(s). They have no interest in having federal employees successfully conduct investigations and succeed in getting federal prosecution of the wrongdoers. (Wrongdoers who my well include corporations and their employees as well as dirty federal managers and oversight authorities. If the corporate wrongdoers are held accountable, it will create havoc with the good old boy revolving door network, and in fact is a threat to those in the goverment, who will no doubt be exposed for their part in the fraud,criminal behavior or cover-up involved. This is one reason not only so called whistleblowers, but career federal employees are finding themselves in record numbers being harassed, targeted for trying to do their jobs ethically and enduring all kinds of retribution from the management going up many steps to very high levels in the Pentagon and in our government.

Until this mess is cleaned out, there is not much hope for improving the situation.
January 22, 2010 6:22 PM
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