Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
The already-famous memo by FBI agent Coleen Rowley is now available on the web and makes grim and fascinating reading. The memo certainly strengthens the case that an independent investigation of the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11 is vital.

Nothing here implicates Bush or senior administration officials, except in the very broad sense that as the man in charge Bush is finally responsible for the successes and failures of his watch. And although Mueller certainly doesn't shine in Rowley's picture, it should be remembered that he had been in office only for a few days on 9/11. What Rowley does implicate is the overly centralized and bureaucratic culture of the FBI, which comes across in her account as almost comically unwilling to take any risks. In describing the FBI bureaucrats as risk-averse, I am of course referring to their unwillingness to risk their career prospects, not the lives of Americans which they seemed quite willing to take chances with.

The problems in the FBI are clearly deeply rooted, going back probably to J. Edgar Hoover, the consummate bureaucrat and ultimate control freak. To obtain a simple search warrant for the belongings of a man already in custody, Rowley and her colleagues had to go through several layers of bureaucracy. Incredibly, they still faced bureaucratic roadblocks after 9/11. They had no knowledge of or access to the memo by Phoenix agent WIlliams, who the Post says "marked his memo 'routine,' knowing that it typically takes 60 days for such documents to go through the chain of command at FBI headquarters."

To meet its obligations in the current situation, the Bureau needs major reforms. It has to move into the 21st century, and allow agents who have similar concerns in Phoenix and Minnesota to communicate directly, instead of sending memos to Washington and praying that somebody there will take notice in a month or two. It has to empower its agents to act, instead of waiting for multiple levels of bureaucracy in Washington to review their plans.

A related point has been well made by Charles Dodgson: before we empower the FBI to take extensive new bites out of the Fourth Amendment in order to gather every piece of information it might possibly want, let's first try having it analyze and act on the information it already has.

Are there similar problems with the CIA? Very likely there are. Certainly the CIA, like the FBI, has a history of operating with little external review or accountability. Much more than the FBI, which is fairly continuously tested by the judiciary, it has had the power to mark its failures as 'top secret' and avoid responsibility for them. And before 9/11, it had problems forecasting other minor events, like the complete collapse of the entire Warsaw Pact.

An independent inquiry is the best means to start fixing the problems so that our security agencies can actually make us more secure.