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The failure of the government to foresee and prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has led to vigorous public criticism of the performance of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. While shortcomings were found in all counterterrorism programs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was particularly singled out for failing to respond properly to intelligence. The nation is now examining how to reform intelligence and law enforcement agencies to better gather, analyze, disseminate-and act upon-intelligence to prevent terrorist acts. During the inquiries that followed Sept. 11, various agencies initially blamed each other for the failure, but soon settled on a common defense, one that only a bureaucrat could love: It wasn’t the agencies’ failure to act on the intelligence they received that was the problem, but rather the intelligence itself. The intelligence, we were told, wasn’t “actionable.” Of course this is nonsense. All intelligence is actionable. If the weatherman says there is a 50% chance of rain tomorrow, you don’t know a whole lot more than when you tuned in, but you can still respond. You might decide to bring an umbrella tomorrow or you might make plans to hold your outdoor event indoors. You might decide to gather more intelligence by monitoring the weather reports as your event draws near. In either case, it is the action you take that determines whether you get wet, not the failure of the weatherman to be more precise. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies did fail to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, but not due to a lack of intelligence. The government had substantial amounts of information, both general and specific, detailing al-Queda’s threat to the United States and the presence of al-Queda terrorists inside the country prior to Sept. 11. Though the information collected was not adequately shared, individuals within various agencies, particularly FBI field agents, were able to analyze it and pass warnings up the chain of command. Despite these warnings, no action was taken to stop the terrorists from implementing their attacks. The problem was a lack of action, not a lack of intelligence. Unfortunately the idea that the Sept. 11 failure was caused by a lack of actionable intelligence got wings. Now, rather than talking about reforming our dysfunctional intelligence agencies to remove the bureaucratic inefficiencies that prevented them from acting on the intelligence they had, we are talking about creating an additional bureaucracy to collect domestic intelligence. Bureaucrats are nothing if not survivors. Perpetuating inefficiencies The FBI wants to transform itself into an intelligence agency so that this new responsibility, and the resources that go with it, stay within the FBI. But creating an additional domestic intelligence-gathering apparatus does nothing to address, and actually distracts from, the real problem: the FBI’s fundamentally flawed management practices. The Sept. 11 Commission’s Staff Statement No. 12 picks up on the disconnect between the proposed solutions and the real problem. Generally the staff report gives the FBI positive marks for “an impressive number of potentially significant reforms,” but it acknowledges “a gap” between the reforms announced at FBI headquarters and the reality in the field. One of the reforms the FBI has publicized is post-Sept. 11 policy that no counterterrorism lead goes unaddressed, “no matter how minor or far-fetched.” If this sounds more like a public relations slogan than a counterterrorism strategy, that’s because it is. According to the staff report, the FBI has only 2,400 agents working counterterrorism around the world. That the FBI would choose to have agents chasing far-fetched leads instead of conducting methodical proactive investigations demonstrates the form-over-substance approach it has taken to these reforms. FBI agents are skilled investigators. Pulling agents away from productive investigations to chase spurious leads wastes resources and destroys agent morale. The most damning passage in the report is that field agents feel headquarters supervisors lack the necessary counterterrorism experience to guide their work. This is the problem that led to the Sept. 11 failure. Field agents identified the threats and tried to take action, but were thwarted by an inefficient, ineffective bureaucracy. Nothing has changed. FBI field agents are the experts. But that expertise is often squandered because institutional arrogance prevents managers from admitting ignorance and seeking information from more knowledgeable subordinates. To make matters worse, managers are not held responsible when cases fail due to their incompetence, and agents who complain about management are actively and openly retaliated against. Field agents know what the real problems are and how to fix them, but nobody’s asking them. Management’s solution is simply to add yet more bureaucracy. Unless the FBI changes its ways, all of the “potentially significant reforms” being implemented will add up to little more than perfume on a pig. No amount of intelligence will make us safer if it’s sitting on a bureaucrat’s desk. FBI agents have a saying that sums up their frustration with management: If only the public knew. Mike German resigned from the FBI in 2004 after 16 years as a special agent.

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