Home   Archive


They can't live up to their billing
Jack Balshaw 10/16/2002

We've all seen it in the movies or on TV, the SWAT team rushes in and saves the innocent victim, the super secret government agency, using exotic tools, uncovers dastardly plots, and the vile villains get their just deserts. If only life were so straightforward.

The SWAT team at the Columbine school in Colorado shooting went in so slowly and cautiously that at least one teacher bled to death in the hours it took for him to be rescued. And all that time the two killers had already committed suicide. Often we read about the police entering a house hours after what was the suicide shot was fired.

For years the good guys have basked in the glow of their movie and TV generated images. We've assumed they were as good as their entertainment counterparts on our screens. But since 9/11 something has changed. Organizations that basked in the mystique of quietly applied competence and action have been shown, for the most part, to be no different than any other bureaucracy.

Their failures to find moles and spies in their own ranks were accepted as due to brilliant operations by the other side (assisted by some bumbling by our side). The failure didn't seem to hurt anyone in real life. But 9/11 did. All of a sudden we citizens saw ourselves at risk because of these failures. Reality forced competence to finally become more important than image.

Our national government does have exotic surveillance devices that can monitor electronic conversations around the globe and it has information sharing relationships with similar agencies in other countries. Unfortunately, each agency within our government is so busy protecting its own turf that it neglects to share information with others.

The FBI is so afraid of making mistakes that it's paralyzed to act. Their bureaucratic interests have superceded their mission.

The CIA provides the appearance of a more professional agency, but it also seems unable to perform the function assigned to it.

If we expect such agencies to perform as movies have indoctrinated us to expect, we need to give them "permission to fail". Otherwise, they will stay within the safe, risk free bounds of bureaucratic operations. If we're going to fight an unconventional enemy, we need to have people on our side that can think and operate in unconventional ways.

Our culture of "gotcha", fully exploited by the cable news channels, results in public agencies tending to play it safe in whatever they do. This is the type of posture that leads to the "intelligence failures" we're now complaining about. We can't have it both ways. Either we, and especially the media, cut them some slack or we're going to keep getting timid decision making from these organizations.

My thoughts on bureaucratic behavior is that to encourage risk takers you can't have them reporting to senior managers who are cautious and conservative in their willingness to support risky operations. There are management methods that allow senior managers to "manage" administratively without giving them veto power over their subordinates' operational actions. Personally, I wouldn't mind if the intelligence or terrorist task forces didn't have anyone over 40 in an operational decision making position.

Congress and the soon to be formed special commission to review intelligence operations will be suggesting modifications to our intelligence arrangements. When they do, they need to keep in mind that it is people who will carry out their suggestions. People we will criticize when they do it wrong and people who we will not recognize when they do it right.

These people will not be movie and TV super heroes. They will be ordinary people trying to do a job. If we expect them to think out of the box, we will also have to accept that some of that thinking will turn out to be wrong. This should be acknowledged when the organizational changes are being made.

Thinking out-of-the-box means doing things that may conflict with "established policy", comfortable relationships and bureaucratic security. Let's give them permission to fail, at least three strikes before they're out.


Home   Archive