Political Hay

Divided We Stand

Who says we need a national intelligence director?

By 8.4.04

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Nobody quite knows how the Hebrew word effess, meaning "nothing," evolved into the Yiddish word eppess, meaning "something." Considering this etymology, eppess is best defined as "the smallest amount of something that is more than nothing." The episode of 9/11 has now led to President Bush offering the latest ode to the art of eppess. He has proposed that the fertile womb of government spawn a new mutation, the Director General of Intelligence.

Asking Congress, in his capacity as Recommender-In-Chief, to authorize this new position, he asserted that it is "a good idea." Is it an idea whose time has come? Or is it an idea whose timing has come? Trusting souls believe the President to mean that doing this is a good idea. Cynical types are wont to interpret that doing "at least one thing that the 9/11 commission suggested" is a good idea.

For us, as members of the vast right-wing conspiracy, trust is absolutely essential, or the whole edifice could come tumbling down. A shrug at the Spectator can become a smirk at Fox News and eventually metastasize into a sneer on Limbaugh. Constrained to take the President at his word, we must examine this "good idea" by a substantive standard. In which case, we identify three areas of complaint. 1) The premise is wrong. 2) The process is wronger. 3) The idea itself is wrongest.

The premise is that all decisions that are followed by bad events must by definition be bad decisions. They will prove to us that the decisions leading up to our pre-Sept. 11 defense posture were wrong by the very fact that we were attacked. This is somewhat akin to the tickets that State troopers used to write both parties after a traffic collision, citing them for "failure to avoid accident." It is possible to make all the right decisions and still harvest a regrettable result.

The inverse of this fallacy is something that we encounter everyday in the business world, where a guy who made a few successful deals begins to assume that he must be a genius. We should not suppose that the Ken Lays of this world began their careers as rapacious predators, trying to part fools from their money. They were simply guys whose decisions worked out well a few times, which they mistakenly took as evidence of infallibility.

Bad decisions can turn out well: Jamie Lee Curtis married someone other than me, yet she seems to be happy. Good decisions can turn out badly: Wally Pipp was right when he said that taking just one day off would do him a world of good.

OUR DECISIONS LEADING UP to 9/11 were substantially correct. We did not allow bombings in Tanzania and Yemen to give our national life the flavor of paranoia. There was no immutable logic that decreed that we hunker in bunkers. We valued the openness of our society, which is the key to our spiritual strength as much as to our financial success, far more than the sum total of all the bellicose bellowing of the cave-dwellers in Afghanistan and the palace-dwellers in Iraq.

In the end, 19 ruffians managed to kill 3,000 innocent people and cost our economy a trillion dollars, all for the price of a plane ticket apiece. It was a devastating blow, and it sparked vehement return visits to Afghanistan and Iraq. We have also tightened up our internal security to an extent, in an effort to further minimize risk.

All of this is not to say that there were not lessons to be learned. Some of the obstacles that bits of info encounter as they swim through the bureaucratic bloodstream, originally conceived as checks and balances, had hardened into clots. And it would have been nice if someone had spelunked more seriously for Bin Laden before September 11. But those are bathwater issues, not baby issues. Frankly, those problems benefited more from the self-correcting experience of the attack than from any pontifical commissions. Remember, any bureaucrat's first impulse is "cover your keister"; that same impetus has them scurrying to make darned sure it doesn't happen again on their watch.

There is no need to scapegoat some schnook at the CIA for missing the import of some Arab chatter about "the mother of all terrorist bombings." I don't think that it's giving away any national-security secrets when I tell you that the radio waves are saturated with tripe like that on a constant basis. Most of this is bombast, not bombing. Arab teenagers want the same thing that American teenagers want, but they have been told that the maidens are more amenable up in Heaven. Unless they meet a guy who knows a guy, they usually have to content themselves with bluster and braggadocio, just the same as our teenagers.

Bottom line, the premise is wrong. 9/11 is not anyone's fault, nor does it expose a fault line in our intelligence community.

ONCE YOU BUY THE premise, you find yourself stuck with the process. So, sure enough, we were bequeathed a 9/11 commission. Former bureaucrats and politicians, nostalgic for the days that taxpayers greased the wheels of their limos, came huffing and puffing out of retirement, eager to shower us with the wisdom that guided them into their former desuetude. The word spread like wildfire across the putting greens and the canasta tables of the land: there is a BUDGET!

The first problem with this process is that the gathering of evidence is virtually guaranteed to distort context. Say that one memo out of a million that is generated by a given unit over the course of a year warns of "possible devastating terrorist attacks in the homeland." The cascade of memos offering every possible scenario serves to obviate the significance of this one speculation among many. But when a commission member holds up that one memo and waves it at a CIA Director or a Cabinet minister, it acquires an individual personality that its author never dreamed possible. This form of hindsight is 20-20 revision.

The other glaring flaw of this process is the need to demand changes. It is simply inconceivable for a commission of this sort to issue a summation that reads "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." This would make its entire existence seem to have been redundant. The pressure to justify its expenditure of public funds and patience becomes insuperable.

They always fall into the same trap, that of the Program Director at the Number One radio station. At first, he basks in having propelled his craft to the summit. Then he begins to get nervous; if he does nothing to change the format, some efficiency expert will argue that the position of program director may be eliminated. So he starts tinkering with his already winning formula, and before long the station slides downhill.

Here, too, if the commission does not want to look like an error, it must cite errors of commission -- and omission. It must offer plans to shake things up, to turn things over, to shift things around, to reassess and reassert and reassign. Before you know it, the old system that worked has been junked, and its replacement is a whole lot worse, if only because green discolors more than rust. The commission scraps and meddles, but it does not necessarily iron. The process is wronger than the premise.

Finally, wrongest of all is the idea itself. We all recognize the Director of General Intelligence; he is the doddering old dodo in Len Deighton novels who is too busy polishing his political alliances to worry overmuch about his work product. Unless someone has a Churchillian figure in mind, or even an Acheson, letting one address be the final port of call for all intelligence information and analysis practically guarantees that much, if not most, valuable material will arrive at a dead end. One office means one viewpoint, that is a hard and fast rule of bureaucracy. If you want diverse approaches, you must set up divergent channels.

GENERALLY, TOO, MONOPOLY IS not an idea that works any better in government than it does in the private sector. The Departments of State and Defense have job descriptions with a great deal of overlap, a recipe for tension, friction, and attrition. In administration after administration, the tales of infighting and arm-wrestling are traded with lip-smacking relish. Still, the overall result of this clash is positive. Most of the tension is converted into creativity. The only response to backbiting is to keep busy on the front burner.

If you want to examine the effectiveness of a monopoly in a governmental setting, ask yourself two questions. 1) What fabulous innovative thing has the Department of Interior done for you lately to improve your life as a citizen? 2) Who the heck is the Secretary of Interior anyway?

Creating a Directorate of General Intelligence to mold the entire colorful display of intelligence flavors into one plain-vanilla report for the President is an absolutely awful idea that will make us drastically less equipped for the next unpleasant surprise. The problem is that when that happens, the next commission will have every option but one: they will never be able to admit that the previous body saddled us with a new nightmare. Once we take off the multi-colored dreamcoat, we will not get another shot at the kingdom.

Mr. President, if you must do eppess, why not something dynamic that will capture the public imagination without letting your decision-making be "out of commission"? Why not assemble all the leaders of the different arms of the intelligence structure in the Oval Office and announce that you are going to make the exact opposite move? You will have a separate quasi-cabinet meeting once a week with the "intelligence cabinet," in which each group will have a chance to put forth what it considers to be its matter of highest priority.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.