I listened on the radio this morning, mouth agape, as the journalist assigned to intelligence by her newspaper opined that President Obama sounded “too harsh” as he erupted about the rampant incompetence in what the apologists love to call the “intelligence community.” Of course, it has proven itself over the years as neither particularly intelligent nor a community. Mostly, it has proven itself — or rather its leadership — expendable.
That horde of bureaucratic self-groomers (i.e., the intelligence community leadership) has been screwing up for decades. The consistency in giving its seniors in the White House what they want, rather than what they need, is truly remarkable. It ranges from the persistently wrong, grotesquely overstated estimates of the military capabilities of the old Soviet Union to completely missing that imperial bureaucracy’s collapse to the habitual screw ups in modern (terrorist) times, the latest of which has been dissected endlessly since Christmas Day.
The only other thing the “intelligence community” seems to be good at (other than consistently missing trends of huge importance) is bureaucratic infighting. It does this, quite well, at two levels. The disparate elements have successfully kept themselves at each others’ throats inside the US Government, refusing to interact even well enough to share computerized data — a stunning accomplishment in itself. Effortlessly, it also warded off the feckless attempts of the famous 9/11 Commission to encourage it learn how to “connect the dots.” Good work, boys.
Also, however, the intelligence community is to be noted for its success at keeping Presidents cowed at the idea of serious change, such as might result from firings — especially of those at the top. You see, no one is responsible for the mistakes, some of them costing lives, sometimes in the thousands. It’s processes that need changing, right? When you want to pretend to be reforming something, fiddle with the organizational chart, which relieves the people who should be held accountable, earns you their praise for being oh so wise, and gets you to the next screw up. Then, we’ll get going on that re-org thing all over again.
Just as George Tenet told Presidents Bush and Cheney “it’s a slam dunk” when they told him his briefing on Iraq was not quite right and what it should say, the intelligence community leadership in the Situation Room yesterday deigned to squabble over who was really responsible for the Christmas Day bombing attempt. Clearly, President Obama was upset enough for a head or two to roll, but knowing what he wanted to hear, they all promised to play nice.
It’s all going to happen again, unless people, especially those at the top, learn they will be held accountable.
WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.