Counter-Terrorism Bureaucracy

George Will distills the testimony of Clarke and Rice thusly:

Stripped of their score-settling over perceived professional slights, Clarke’s conflicting versions of 10 years of counterterrorism policy, distilled to their essence, support the essential point of Rice’s testimony. It is: The processes of the federal government, and especially of the many agencies in its national security apparatus, had before 9/11 — and Rice says they still have — a thickness, a bureaucratic viscosity that are normal aspects of bureaucracies. But in these abnormal times, this coagulating river of fudge unacceptably compromises national security.

So Rice’s testimony was invaluable pedagogy for a public that thinks it knows what a blunt and cumbersome instrument government is, but that doesn’t know the half of it. The commission’s public hearings give viewers a glimpse of the texture of institutional life within which presidents struggle to process information and defeat institutional inertia.

Certainly true. But Will seems to believe that this is a problem with a solution. Attempts to take the bureaucracy out of bureaucracy have generally proven as effective as attempts to take the politics out of politics. Certainly, progress can be made but there are inherent trade-offs in this process that the 9-11 commissioners and, indeed, the rationale behind it, ignores. There are excellent reasons why classified documents are classified (although the process is often sloppy and overused), why the FBI and CIA operate in distinct spheres, and senior policy officials don’t see every snippet of information gathered in the field.

We can and must improve the system to make effective terrorist attacks more difficult, mainly through measures to make terrorism less attractive. But the notion that there will never be another successful attack or that such attacks necessarily constitute “failure” on the part of an administration must be overcome. We don’t convene a public tribunal to investigate the criminal justice system every time there’s a murder; we understand that that would be an impossible standard to hold the police to. Nor would we want to live in a society where crime–or terrorism–is impossible. Even if such a state were feasible, the cost in liberty would be so high as to make it unlivable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.