Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman have an excellent piece in Newsweek detailing the extent to which, almost two years after 9/11, the “military-intelligence complex” is still up to old tricks. Partly, this is a good thing: organizations have professional cultures that are resistant to what they consider ill-advised moves by decision-makers lacking their in-depth expertise.

[M]ore than most people may realize, the gung-ho, damn-the-torpedoes approach of Bush and his war cabinet has been met with suspicion and pockets of real bureaucratic resistance–from ordinary gum-shoes in the FBI, CIA case officers in the field, generals at the Pentagon, men and women throughout the military and intelligence community.

On the other hand, it means that many of the problems that constantly get identified, and which were under the microscope in the post-9/11 examinations, are basically still with us.

One major problem–for which there is no ready solution–is careerism. Soldiers, law enforcement agents, and intelligence analysts aren’t going to risk screwing up their career advancement by being too bold.

[O]ne FBI official told NEWSWEEK, was simple: “I’m going to make sure I’m on solid legal ground here. I don’t care how much the director wants to report the existence of an Al Qaeda cell to the president in a Matrix briefing. I’m not going to be suspended or fired over this.”


During the 1980s and 1990s, a culture of risk aversion became deeply embedded in the national-security establishment. “People have long memories around here,” said a senior CIA official. They remember the congressional witch hunts after Watergate, when headline-hungry lawmakers exposed years of agency “dirty tricks,” failed assassination plots and spying on American citizens. The CIA official recalled an old Navy expression from the days when everyone smoked: “You never want to be the only one at the table without an ashtray,” i.e., the man summoned to explain to the brass what went wrong. “That’s still the way people here feel,” said the senior spook. During Vietnam, military men complained that they had been abandoned, if not stabbed in the back, by civilian politicians. They were determined never to go to war again without civilian backing and a sure exit strategy. For an officer trying to climb the ranks in a “zero defects” culture, taking casualties could be seen as a fatal mistake. In some peacekeeping operations, like Haiti and Bosnia, “force protection” –keeping your men from getting shot–became the No. 1 mission. The troops hunkered down in their armored vehicles and flak jackets and were rarely seen on patrol in the streets.

It’s hard to blame people for trying to protect their livelihoods. And, as the authors point out,

It would be a mistake to picture a national-security establishment of swashbuckling politicians and timorous or jaded troops. The Special Operations commandos who joined what Rumsfeld delightedly described as “the first cavalry charge of the 21st century” while fighting on horseback against the Taliban in Afghanistan were as brave and resourceful as can be. Many junior officers welcome the chance to prove themselves in action. Many FBI agents and CIA case officers risk their lives as well as their careers. Nonetheless, NEWSWEEK’s reporting suggests that the culture of risk aversion is alive and well post-9/11. It often takes subtle forms, but it is the reality that underlies (and sometimes undercuts) Bush’s hard-charging rhetoric.

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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.


  1. JohnC says:

    What mystifies me is the assumption that they were wrong. It seems to me that these “careerists” who are not “so bold” were completely correct in their assessments, and it was the people pushing for “out of the box” thinking and “bold” plans that have turned out to be completely loony toons.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It’s a mixed bag. Many times, the pros indeed get it right. The problem is that they are unresponsive to changes. It’s one thing to be cautious with intel analysis and not coming up with findings just because the boss wants to hear them. It’s another to sit on evidence because it’s riskier to make a bold prediction than to keep regurgitating the school solution.

  3. James Joyner says:

    My retirement portfolio certainly took a hit over the last couple of years along with everyone elses. But, since I’ve been investing since the late 1980s, I’m way, way ahead.

    And I’ve never made a lot of money. I’ve been an Army lieutenant, a professor at state universities in the South, and now a book editor in the D.C. Metro area. My salary now is quite a bit higher than it once was, but it’s barely enough to afford a townhouse here.

  4. JohnC says:

    <heh> I guess you posted to the wrong thread, but no worries.

    I’m glad to hear it. I personally think those who have served in our military deserve far more than we’re currently giving them. I’ve been looking for the statistics, but I seem to remember a rather high percentage of the military receiving government assistance (over and above their pay). Something I find incredibly disgraceful.

    I think if you were investing since the 80’s, you’re likely okay. The bubble was a bounce, but it wasn’t a major blow. But to those who only started investing in the 90’s (the bulk of individual investors) they have a completely different story.