9/11 – An Intelligence or a National Failure

It seems to me that stress on intelligence failure has been so inflated in recent years, to the point of becoming practically an idée fix within the community and its critics from the political and media spectrums. The amount of time spent bickering about whose fault 9/11 was or whether it could have been prevented and engaging in sophist word battles gives credit neither to the intelligence community Rovner and Long defend so passionately nor Ms Zagart’s ivory tower of political science with a dash of organizational management theory.

So, while I ultimately agree with Rovner and Long that 9/11 was not an intelligence but a national failure, I also think both “sides” are striving toward the same goal, i.e. improved intelligence capabilities, and in light of this they both have valuable contributions to make to the debate how this can be achieved, without turning the issue into a polemic.

I think the inflated stress on intelligence failure is a U.S. phenomenon. I’m not aware of any other country which spends half as much time on public debates with regard to intelligence capabilities and intelligence failure. As a patron of democracy, human rights and civil liberties, perhaps it is inevitable that such debates should be made public in the U.S., but perhaps it is not inevitable that they should be let to linger on indefinitely. My personal opinion, which I know will rub many people the wrong way, is that civil rights activists’ debates add oil to the fire rather than help extinguish it. Scapegoatism is rampant in the political sphere. It is an unsavory characteristic not exclusive to policy-makers but also to journalists, intelligence professionals, law enforcement…the whole gamut of professionals dedicated to serving the public. And since most people who get into this “business” do so out of their best intentions to fulfill their duty to society, when something goes wrong, no one will voluntarily accept the blame. What is so unfortunate about this all too human characteristic is that it is a complete waste of time and it results in no constructive solutions. In this sense, I completely agree with Grove’s observation that clarification can only come through broad and intensive debate, but a debate, I would like to add, where instead of finger-pointing, the ideas, recommendations, and concerns of all stakeholders are aggregated in the quest to find a way out of the rut.  Having scrutinized both Zegart’s and Rovner/Long’s arguments, it would seem that such an aggregation of ideas and recommendations is entirely possible, when we take aside the issue of blame.

What I liked about Zegart’s arguments was that they were relativistic rather than either-or propositions. Her distinction between change and adaptation is relativistic in that she places maximum importance on the impact of an occurrence rather than the occurrence itself. Time and again she argues that the question is not whether changes are needed in the structure and processes of the intelligence community, but how big the impact of these changes is going to be.

Similarly, when Grove describes his meeting with a CEO in dire straits, who faced with a strategic inflection point implemented some minor cosmetic changes on the periphery, rather than taking the radical approach needed under the circumstances, I became more and more convinced of the importance of the “how” over the “what”.

Increasingly, the “how fast” also seems to be gaining ground over the “what”. Zagart laments why it took so long for the intelligence community to put Khalid al-Mihdhar on the State Department’s watch list. Rovner agonizes over the alleged inactiveness of decision-makers to take action upon the strategic and tactical warning he believes the community provided prior to 9/11. And in the corporate world, Grove speaks of the too-little-too late syndrome that acts as a “force paralizer” (my emphasis) to business survival. All these examples made me think of our perception of speed, and whether it really is cognitively possible for us to react as swiftly as we wish as the speed of unfolding events increases. For example, while sitting in a fast moving car, we hardly realize or feel the “real” speed until a moment of collision. Until that point, we are passive observers of the speed. But once a collision occurs or the car spins out of control, we are suddenly in the middle of the action. Usually, at moments like this, characterized by extreme speed, instinct and gut feeling kick in, and more often than not, it is precisely the lack of inspection/retrospection that saves us.

Zagart bases her arguments on four findings based on her qualitative analysis of the intelligence community’s failure to adapt to new threats: lack of “corporateness”, insufficient HUMINT, personnel skills in non-Romance foreign languages, and weakness in setting priorities.

Let’s look at “corporateness” first. Her proposal that the community should become more centralized has some merit. A more centralized IC, will I believe not alleviate all problems of data sharing because that’s ultimately a culture problem, but it could at least pave the road, so to speak. Uniform personnel policies and centralized priorities setting body could help build a stronger community identity as well as give more focus and clarity. This is similar to what Grove proposes for the later stages of a strategic inflection point. If chaos is what rules the community as a result of its decentralization, then “clarity of direction which includes describing what we are going after as well as describing what we will not be going after is exceedingly important at the late stage of a strategic transformation.”

Rovner and Long, on the other hand, see the matter quite differently. They suggest that the structure of the community should be reflective of the structure of the external environment, namely that in the face of transnational threats and a multipolar system of power in the international arena, the community will not benefit by adopting a centralized approach because the latter is better suited to bipolar balance of power.  They suggest instead that a decentralized structure will help connect people who would normally not connect under a hierarchical centralize structure, very much in the way that social networking software has enabled people to form clusters of interest via various web 2.0 technologies.

I’m not sure what the right approach is as I can see benefits to both. In mirroring the external environment, the community would resemble an animal that changes its skin and color to blend in thereby avoiding danger, but at the same time giving it a better opportunity to take the enemy by surprise. This is certainly a practical idea, if not entirely ethical. Zagart’s proposition that a combination of centralization and decentralization is possible through deciding “what, how, and how much to centralize” is, I think, a viable option.

Further, Zagart makes an interesting, if gloomy, connection to population ecologists’ theory that innovation happens as a result of old organizations being replaced by new ones. This points to an inherent weakness in government agencies, namely that the lack of competition at the public sector level breeds stagnation and mediocrity. Her subsequent recommendations for community-wide training and rotational assignments as way to build trust between the different agencies and create a new culture through a collective mind-set transformation is not only well formulated, but it is something with which even her critics Rovner and Long might agree. Measures of this kind are not a question of “reorganization”, which Rovner and Long remain unconvinced will result in improved capabilities. A change of mind-set is a conceptual measure with long-reaching strategic impacts. It is the type of radical change that Grove describes as opposed to the minor changes on the periphery.

Rovner’s advocacy for reforms focusing on improving analytic techniques, increasing the quality of new hires, and retaining long-term professionals” are precisely the type of steps necessary for changing a mind-set.  It seems, Ms Zagart and Mr Rovner should get together for a brainstorming session instead of stoking petty arguments about blame. Ultimately, the blame discussion is a theosophical one. If you believe that God has foreknowledge of everything, then you’re likely to find solace in the fact that your own actions are never to blame. If you believe in free will, accepting responsibility might come more “naturally”. I would recommend the policy-makers, intelligence analysts, management gurus and journalists with the former tendency to (re)read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

Finally, I decided to follow Grove’s guiding questions in identifying whether a change signals a strategic inflection point and apply them in the context of national security intelligence:

Question 1: Is your key competitor about to change? Identify your key competitor with the “silver bullet” test: if you had just one bullet who would you save it for?

Now, up till 1991, that answer would undeniably have been Russia. In 2008, can we with any certainty say who we’re saving the bullet for? I think not. I think it is impossible to answer this question at the present moment of time. This, then clearly indicates that we are facing a strategic inflection point. Like the fairy many-headed dragon, we are facing a multipolar spectrum of threats, which because of their interconnectedness, it is impossible to determine which one will affect us more severely than others.

Question 2: Is your key complementor about to change? Does the company that in past years mattered the most to you and your business seem less important today?

Yes and yes. I take here the key complementor to be Europe, at least traditionally. Europe’s spheres of influence on the international arena are waning in pretty much every field: economic, demographic, military, and so on. Trans-Atlantic relations are suffering from the same type of internal bickering about blame that was discussed above. NATO is suffering from a similar identity crisis it suffered at the time of writing the Harmel report in the late 1960s. Regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are strong competitors to the trans-Atlantic alliance in the struggle for power and influence. China and India are both excellent potential new complementors and competitors simultaneously. An emerging new energy powerful but disgruntled Russia should definitely remain on the radar. After all, it is precisely that which Mr Putin wants – respect.

Question 3: Do people seem to be “losing it” around you?

Well, I’m not sure if they’re “losing it” more now than in the past, but a sense of pending gloom and doom is certainly in the air: lapses in relation to long-standing conflicts, emergence of new conflicts, increase in nationalistic rhetoric, melting glacials…

In short, yes, all the signs are here that we are in a strategic inflection period, head on. So, when thinking about re-organization and reform, we should not forget the “strategic” part of this transformation. Marginal changes won’t do. A radical change is needed not on an operational but a conceptual level, and maybe also on a more spiritual level, namely, recognizing that, free will comes with the price tag of taking responsibility for one’s actions.


3 Responses

  1. This is an interesting conspiracy. Many people should know about this. We all know that freemasons basically run everything from drugs, to oil, to military. Maybe one day the new world order will be exposed for what it really is.

  2. Hi Adam,

    thanks for the comment, but I’m not really sure what conspiracy you refer to. I don’t think 9/11 was a conspiracy, but perhaps you’d care to elaborate.


  3. I knew there was a good reason why I should’ve joined the Freemasons!

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