Intel Czar? Pfui!

The 9/11 Commission accuses everybody–Bush Admin, Clinton Admin, the Congress and even we, the people–of a ‘failure of imagination.’ Having made that charge on every media channel in the known world, they then produce recommendations so thoroughly lacking in imagination and so predictable that we need hardly have waited all these months to hear them, and they need hardly have held all those hearings and waded through all those documents to come up with them: an Intelligence Czar. Brilliant. We could have seen that coming blindfolded.

I’m not sorry the Commission held the hearings or gathered the information; both were important duties and had to be done or the whole thing would have been swept under the carpet by the Bushian Denial Squad. But the recommendations I’ve read so far–particularly the one for an intel czar–are both glaringly unimaginative and patently unworkable.

Biting criticism of the total failure of Nixon’s War on Drugs in the late 60’s led to a similar commission and identical recommendations. Starting in 1970, we were burdened with a Drug Czar and the formation of a new agency, the DEA, that was supposed to solve all the problems by gathering and co-ordinating the information previously scattered among a dozen agencies, setting overall policy, and eliminating the turf battles that had hampered enforcement operations. The Drug Czar quickly became a joke, the DEA an enforcement travesty and legal nightmare, and the turf wars went on unabated, in some cases exacerbated (Customs still isn’t speaking to the DEA without either a court order or a Presidential Directive). Drug enforcement remains largely in the hands of local police, and although the DEA has been in existence for 35 years, it has had no measurable effect on drug smuggling except for this: by centralizing the policy-making, it has successfully promoted a single set of rules drug smugglers have to worry about, and the rules have holes in them–it’s actually a little easier to smuggle drugs since the formation of the DEA.

The concept of an Intelligence Czar is attractive both because of its deceptive simplicity and its systemic nature. Blame the system and you don’t have to face the much more dangerous political waters of pinning responsibility on individuals and agencies in the present Admin who fucked up. More importantly, you don’t have to try to explain to the American people why they fucked up: because they deliberately subverted the system that was in place in order to promote the outcome they wanted.

There is no change you can make to any system that’s going to work if the people who run it are ignoring it, sidestepping it, and twisting it for political reasons at every turn, and that is clearly what happened here. The NIE was purposefully re-written in order to remove all the doubts expressed by CIA analysts; OSP and C-TEC stovepiped raw intelligence data nobody in those groups had either the experience or the knowledge to evaluate properly; intel was cherry-picked for its ideological value, not its operational or informational value; even though the ‘system was blinking red’, as the Commission Report puts it, terrorism was not a Bush Admin priority so it was simply ignored; Condi Rice chose to define her job as National Security Advisor as (the CR again) ‘beginning at the water’s edge’ and focused on international threats from nations rather than domestic terrorism–which David Neiwert at Orcinus has been been saying for years (and documenting it) is a much more immediate and dangerous threat–or the plans of international terrorists to attempt an attack on American soil. Sandy Berger couldn’t even get a meeting with Rice during the transition because she didn’t think his input would be ‘relevant’. How is an Intel Czar, reporting to and responsible to the president going to change or improve any of those collosal failures?

It can’t, because the fix is systemic and the problem isn’t. 9/11 was clearly preventable. That it wasn’t prevented is a direct result, not of the failure of the system but of the failure of the people running it to care about what it was telling them, and their insistence on forcing it to say what they wanted it to say whether what they wanted it to say was true or not. Does anybody with half a brain really believe that a political appointee responsible to this president with these attitudes would have done more than Tenet? If he had, there would soon have been a ‘change’–either he would be shuffled out of the picture, as Colin Powell was until he started playing ball, or else he’d be replaced by somebody who would throw his hands up in a meeting and tell Junior what he wanted to hear–‘It’s a slam-dunk, Mr President’–as soon as he understood that he wasn’t getting out of that room until he did.

By failing to address the actual problems in the BA that allowed 9/11 to happen, the Commission has utterly failed in its duty to explain it, which is bad enough. What’s worse is that that failure may foist on us a false solution that will add a layer of bureaucracy, officially politicize intelligence gathering and analysis, and institutionalize all the attitudes and incompetence that led to this debacle.

Like the pronouncements of the BA itself, the Commission’s recommendation for an intel czar sounds good, but it’s a superficial and doomed solution. The jewel is a prop made of wax, and it will melt the first time it’s exposed to the sun.

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