August 23, 2004 · Richard Posner
Enough for the moment on fair use; I’ll get back to that.
I’m interested in the report of the 9/11 Commission on the intelligence failures that led up to the 9/11 attack. I was asked to do a book review of by it the New York Times, and I agreed (the review will appear in next Sunday’s New York Times book review section, but as the Sunday Times Book Review is published the preceding Monday, my review was actually published today) because of my interest in how the nation should be responding to catastrophic risks (this turns out to be, to a considerable extent, a law and science issue). My book Catastrophe: Risk and Response will be published in November by Oxford University Press, and besides taking the opportunity created by my guest blogging to plug the book shamelessly, I am going to be discussing some of the issues raised in it.
One is how to defend against terrorism. Although the 9/11 Commission’s report is a good read, and has other virtues as well, one of its greatest weaknesses is its failure to address, other than in passing, terrorist risks that are even greater than that of another 9/11: in particular the risks of bioterrorism, nuclear terrorism, and cyberterrorism. The Commission’s recommendations are concerned essentially with preventing a more or less exact repetition of the 9/11 attacks, which are any event the least likely form of a future terrorist attack, since surprise has been lost. We give our adversaries little credit if we suppose that the only attack they can launch is the one we’ve anticipated. They didn’t make that mistake on 9/11; why should they now?
The Commission’s report, because of its timing in relation to the election and because of the unusual promotional (and self-promotional) efforts of the Commission’s members, has attracted enormous attention, particularly with respect to its marquee recommendation (as one commentator put it) for the creation of a new position of National Intelligence Director.
With all due respect for Senator Roberts, his proposal, at least as described by the New York Times, seems to me to highlight the problems with the Commission’s report rather than to solve them. He proposes to break the CIA into three parts, and also to create a new agency from within the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and to place all the intelligence agencies under the direction of the new NID (National Intelligence Director). It is unclear what he wants to do with the uniformed intelligence services (Army, Navy, etc.), so it’s unclear just how many intelligence agencies he envisages the NID directing, but it is at least 15 and could go as high as 18.
The agencies are highly diverse. One for example designs and launches spy satellites; another analyzes intelligence for the State Department; another does satellite mapping; another is the FBI’s counterrorist division; and so on and on. No one seems to have considered whether it makes good management sense to place all these agencies under the direction of a single official. There is some optimum span of control, which the proposal seems to exceed. It would be highly unusual in any organization for 18 divisions to report directly to the president, especially if they were as diverse as our intelligence agencies. Probably the agencies should be grouped. Well, they are grouped; most of them are part of the Defense Department. The proposal would spin them off, them put them all under the NID. Sounds pretty dubious.
There is also a point that readers of Larry’s blog should particularly appreciate: the dangers of centralization. Of course to have multiple overlapping intelligence agencies creates a degree of chaos (and there are limits, which breaking up the CIA might well exceed); but it also creates competition among organizations having different organizational cultures, personnel policies, traditions, methods, etc. Were the agencies to be welded into a single organization, the inevitable tendency would be the substitution of uniformity for heterogeneity and centralized control for a competitive “market” in which rival agencies strive to get their views accepted by the President. Would there be a net improvement? Neither the 9/11 Commission, with its less ambitious project of centralization, nor Senator Roberts, with his more ambitious one, has explored this vital question in depth, at least so far as an outsider is able to judge.
Against all this it can be argued that we have to do something, because we were surprised in 9/11, so we must have been doing something wrong. Not necessarily. Yesterday my wife and I happened to attend a surprise 60th birthday party thrown by the woman’s husband. He had thrown a surprise party for her on her 50th birthday. Nevertheless, she was completely surprised–indeed, stunned–by the party yesterday.
It is easy to surprise people, including entire nations.