I would be remiss if I started this week’s column without first thanking every one of you who took the time to write in during this past week with your thoughts and comments on the tragic Virginia Tech massacre. Many of your e-mails were striking in their eloquence and emotion.
There were many notes from current and past Virginia Tech alumni, every last one asking to withhold judgment on the university’s officials and law enforcement authorities until all the facts have been gathered and reviewed. There was clear and unanimous disgust from readers over the initial speculation and blame-tossing that began even before the sun set on that sad Monday.
The investigation is being carried out in a methodical manner, and we are beginning to get a clearer picture of the day’s events and of the killer’s background, psyche and troubled past. From this process, not from the initial second-guessing and uninformed finger-pointing, will we develop lessons that could possibly prevent something similar from happening again.
Unfortunately, life being what it is, there will always be the potential for bad things to happen and innocent people to become victims. We can’t remove all of life’s risks through increased security measures or new legislation. It’s like the War on Terror. It’s not a zero-sum game. You work to minimize the risks, knowing that you can never completely remove the threats.
And since we’ve mentioned the War on Terror, here’s a question: When was the last time you read an article in a major media outlet about either the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)?
It seems like just yesterday when we could count on one or more stories a week outlining some new initiative, personnel change or development at these organizations that sit on the pointy edge of the counterterrorism spear.
Naturally the war in Iraq, the need to constantly monitor the wacky antics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his continuing efforts to hog the nuclear-powered spotlight, the fast-approaching presidential elections (hurry, only 561 days left to fixate on this) and other events conspire to keep DHS- and DNI-related stories off the front pages.
I’m not saying we need daily updates on how these two entities are doing, but given their remits as the leading elements focused on keeping us safe, I’d like to be able to peek behind the curtain every now and then to see what’s what.
If you’re not familiar with the basics of either organization, here’s a quick primer.
DHS is a mammoth cabinet department (only the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs are bigger) that was created in response to Sept. 11. I hate to refer to the establishment of the DHS as a typical “oh, my God, we have to do something in response to this tragedy even if we haven’t really thought through the consequences” type of response, but… if it talks like a duck.
Essentially, DHS as we know it really kicked off in early 2003 when we managed to take over 20 agencies ranging from the U.S. Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Transportation Security Administration and several with really tricky acronyms and stuff them into one large box labeled “Mammoth Dysfunctional Agency.”
Since that time, DHS has struggled to integrate all the various agencies into something resembling a fine-tuned machine while combating employee morale issues, a really crappy office location (which does nothing to help the morale problem) and, at the core of it all, a flawed concept borne out of the desire to do something in response to the shock of Sept. 11.
On the upside, DHS did give us the color-coded threat-warning system and, in what could have been the strangest appointment in recent memory, very nearly put New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik in a cabinet secretary post when he was nominated to replace outgoing DHS Secretary Tom Ridge.
For those not keeping score, Kerik was a close associate of Rudy Giuliani, both during that mayor’s time in office and after with Giuliani Partners, his private consulting firm that undoubtedly will be dug into by opposition research specialists.
We don’t have sufficient space to weave our way through this bit of history, but the short version is that Kerik got a recommendation from Giuliani for the DHS post, his name was put forward, Kerik apparently realized after the fact that a background check would be required and decided he should back out.
This caused a great deal of embarrassment to the administration, which added to the perception of DHS as a big mutt that smells bad. Again, that’s the short summary.
Moving on to the ODNI… In late 2004, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth in response to the report issued by the 9/11 Commission, it was decided that what we really needed to keep us safe was a new level of bureaucracy.
Thus, the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was established to act as the designated leader of the intelligence community. Up until this time, the head of the community was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
I lump this decision creating the DNI and building a squishy layer of bureaucracy complete with extra helpings of redundancy into the intelligence community in the same category as the decision to create DHS.
The category is called “Really ineffective decisions made by well-meaning persons who unfortunately mistook change for improvement and felt obligated to push for change despite a lack of evidence that change would do us good.” Admittedly, it’s a long title that could use some punching up.
The ODNI is much smaller than the DHS. It has about a couple thousand compared to DHS’ some 180,000 employees. Unfortunately, these two organizations share certain traits: employee morale that could be described as ranging from “poor” to “less than poor,” an inability to integrate the necessary working pieces and parts and a fundamental belief that the concept behind each structure is flawed.
Both organizations are staffed with extremely capable, professional and hard-working people. The problem isn’t the individuals who make up the organizations, the problem is that both organizations were borne out of tragedy and emotion. There was an overwhelming desire to find fault and lay blame with existing agencies and procedures.
Then came the desire to show how much we had learned in the process of examining what went wrong. Out of this emerged DHS and ODNI. My suggestion is that we now step back, look at what we’ve created and ask if the change did us any good.
Or, we could wait until the next attack or incident. Remember, with counterterrorism, it’s all about minimizing and disrupting. Only a liar will tell you that we can prevent all attacks or remove all the threats completely.
Here’s my prediction: At some point, unfortunately, we’ll likely suffer another incident. When that happens, we’ll first engage in the who’s to blame self-flagellation exercise, then we’ll appoint some commissions, reports will be issued and legislation will be drawn up to dismantle DHS and ODNI. We’ll end up with something more streamlined.
Something that will look oddly like what we had prior to Sept. 11. Just a prediction.
That’s my opinion. Let me know yours… please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Till next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.