JANUARY 9, 2010Isaac reacts on the comments on the WSJ editorial‘A failure to Connect the Dots’:
The editorial writer rightly criticizes the typical to all bureaucracies measures taken after 9/11: reshuffling existing parts and adding new layers. I’d like however to play a devil’s advocate and agree with Obama administration saying that “counterterrorism community” as a whole failed “to connect the dots of intelligence.” Agree not because the administration blamed but because it acknowledged—perhaps unknowingly—that this community is indeed able to capture the dots.
Capturing—what physicists call—weak signals of potential dangers is the most difficult and challenging task. The US “counterterrorism community” succeeded in this every time, including in 9/11 when it held Zacarias Moussaoui 3 weeks prior to 9/11. What it couldn’t do then and now, in the latest bomb plot, is to act on the information they captured. And the reason for it was the bureaucracy. A little dot that Minneapolis FBI team led by Colleen Rowley wanted to act on consisted in the local training center flight instructors suspicion after Moussaoui said he wanted to learn how to fly a commercial jet, but not how to take off or land. A dot? Rather a huge stain.The FBI local team wanted understandably to act on it: to search Moussaoui’s computer. But the bureaucracy in Washington denied the search warrant. It came though within hours after 9/11 and the computer revealed loads of information on the terrorist activity.
And it was a bureaucratic, not simply legal problem. In her 2002 “bombshell” memo “dropped” by Colleen Rowley on her Director Mueller the FBI agent and lawyer wrote: “[While] the agents in Minneapolis who were closest to the action and in the best position to gauge the situation locally, did fully appreciate the terrorist risk/danger posed by Moussaoui and his possible co-conspirators even prior to September 11th… the FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) who was the one most involved in the Moussaoui matter … seemed to have been consistently, almost deliberately thwarting the Minneapolis FBI agents’ efforts”. And then came this astoundingly harsh verdict from the lawyer Rowley: “Most often, field office agents and field office management will be better suited to the timely and effective solution …and prevention of … incidents. Although [headquarters] personnel have, no doubt, been of immeasurable assistance to the field over the years, I’m hard pressed to think of any case which has been solved by [them] and I can name several that have been screwed up! Decision-making is inherently more effective and timely when decentralized instead of concentrated.” She even proposed how a local judge—instead of the Washington one—could authorize counterterrorism action thus saving the priceless time needed to stop the terrorists.
U.S. and world security may never be ensured unless the counterterrorism bureaucracy is radically reduced so that people like Coleen Rowley can act freely and responsibly—that is, within the legal framework—on the hot weak signal, a little blinking dot they identify. The dots, and sometimes huge stains, are spotted by the people on the ground who can’t act. Terrorists can meantime.