Terror Deja Vu

Two preventable attacks in two months show how we’ve forgotten the lessons of 9/11. Col. Ken Allard on how communication failures kill.

12.28.09 10:46 PM ET

Speaking again from Hawaii, Obama said " a systemic failure" of government intelligence facilitated the near-bombing of Flight 253. Ret. Col. Ken Allard on how communication failures kill.

When I was in the military, we called the problem “inter-operability” or “stovepipes.” At business school, they’re called “silos.” In plain English, when bureaucracies don’t effectively talk to each other, as we saw over the skies of Detroit on Christmas Day and the killing grounds of Fort Hood last month, trouble—and, often, death—follow.

This was supposed to have changed after the 9/11 attacks, when roadblocks on the information highway killed hundreds of police, firefighters and first responders at the Twin Towers. Yet here we are eight years later and, maddeningly, warnings about a Nigerian engineering student hell-bent on a path of Islamist fanaticism were enough to place his name on a watch list, but not enough to prevent him from boarding a plane. And solid information that an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood was in continuing contact with a radical Islamist cleric did not prompt preemptive action by his chain of command.

Trust us, the bureaucrats seem to say, flying naked is a lot less trouble than asking government agencies to share information.

America has been lulled into a false sense of security, by the common but erroneous perception that after 9/11 we solved our technological glitches (eventually) by deploying new gizmos and systems paid for by tax dollars (naturally). The roots of America's continuing interoperability problems are organizational, bureaucratic, and even cultural. Since at the most basic level, information is power, sharing it is a supremely unnatural act. Even more unnatural: spending an agency's own scarce resources to make it easier to share information with one's bureaucratic and budgetary foes, even if it’s in the common interest.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a whole book on subject, Command, Control and the Common Defense. In it, I argued that the interoperability problems of the armed forces reflected their long and separate traditions. Those rivalries were perpetuated by defense budgets that placed service precedence first—joint teamwork a far distant second. The apocryphal story of the Marines on Grenada forced to use an AT&T credit card to call for naval gunfire support wasn't actually true; but it might well have been.

Congressional reforms shortly before the first Gulf War reversed almost two centuries of tradition and made unified action by the armed forces the nation’s highest defense priority. Even with the additional clout, inter-operability has been a problem managed rather than solved because of constant technological and budgetary choices. But the greatest benefit of the Pentagon reforms was the development of a new culture of inter-service partnerships that seemed to work best when pressured to adapt. Just weeks after 9/11, Special Forces teams in Afghanistan (sometimes on horseback) communicated directly with B-52 pilots, calling in devastating air strikes against Taliban positions. The lesson: Defeat stovepipes first and you can defeat the Taliban later.

Yet none of that wisdom was recalled in the tsunami of post-9/11 agency consolidations that eventually created the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence. Far from fostering information-sharing and working partnerships, these consolidations were simply hierarchies eaten by other hierarchies. Homeland Security had the most difficult problem, absorbing dozens of existing federal agencies while trying to manage the problem of domestic security that the Constitution leaves primarily to the states.

Because hierarchies spawn stovepipes as naturally as they eat tax dollars, it is no surprise that Homeland Security has so little to show for its efforts. In January 2007, Secretary Michael Chertoff reported that “badge on badge rivalry” was still epidemic among the nation’s first responders. His successor Janet Napolitano has said all the right words about the inter-operability issue. But neither she nor the Senate and House committees overseeing her department have shown much inclination to seek solutions that are non-conventional or cultural rather than technological.

It’s far simpler to get the flying public used to the idea that commercial aviation will henceforth mean foreswearing clothing, baggage, or visiting the airborne loo. Trust us, the bureaucrats seem to say, flying naked is a lot less trouble than asking government agencies to share information. Or expecting the citizenry to realize that our enemy is a persistently innovative network of networks with a remarkably uncomplicated view of what constitutes success.

But this problem won’t go away that easily. Last spring, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) began asking questions while reviewing the security arrangements for President Obama’s inauguration, attended by crowds estimated as high as two million people. The Capitol Police were reinforced—at the inaugural and at the hearing—by their brother officers from four neighboring jurisdictions. But under Representative Norton’s questioning, they admitted that there was no single communications system uniting their efforts or providing police chiefs with a global view of what was happening.

Had there been a lone shooter or even a group (like the one in Mumbai) firing automatic weapons, the chiefs would likely would have had to use the same communications system you and I would: CNN.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as Dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.