01.07.10

Too Big to Succeed

Homeland Security, with its $42 billion budget, is a giant bureaucratic disaster. Christopher Buckley wonders who, really, is in charge.

The phrase “too big to fail” was much in coinage last year during the crash, the idea being that AIG, Fannie Mae, and other financial leviathans couldn’t be allowed to die, lest the waves caused by their collapse swamp and drown us minnows.

In the wake of the near disaster on Christmas Day, when the U.S. government failed to prevent the Undie-Bomber from boarding his flight to Detroit, another phrase comes to mind: “Too big to succeed.”

Perhaps we need a security czar. What about Dog the Bounty Hunter?

The facts are now deplorably established. Undie-Bomber (let’s dispense with the media nicety of calling him “Mr. Abdulmutallab”) should have rung more bells than the Hunchback of Notre Dame. His own father, a respected banker, had told the CIA that he was a terror risk; he bought his plane ticket with cash; he checked no luggage; he looked more nervous than a nerd on prom night as he boarded. The CIA had duly, if lackadaisically, passed the information to the National Counterterrorism Center. The NCTC saw no particular reason to add Mr.—I mean—Undie-Bomber’s name to the “no-fly” list. Meanwhile, as he was boarding his flight for Detroit, thousands of infants and grannies boarding planes around the world were no doubt having their infant formulas confiscated and their wheelchairs checked.

The problem, as David Ignatius explains in The Washington Post, is that the intelligence system is so awash in data that it cannot see the trees for the forest. The NCTC reviews something like 120 databases, processing 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of information every day. There are some half a million names on the so-called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. (Who came up with that name? Couldn’t they just have called it “The Sh*t List”?) One thinks of the final scene in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the ark is lugged away for storage in a warehouse the size of Rhode Island. And so another phrase comes to mind: the fog of information.

Janet Napolitano, who is nominally in charge of keeping Islamically radicalized Nigerians with explosive panties from forever turning Christmas into “12/25,” stepped to the microphones to declare, Go back to your eggnog—we’re all on it! This left her boss, the commander in chief, to hand his nine-iron to the caddy and grimly ask for broom and dustpan.

Obama is a cool customer. It is difficult to imagine him blowing his proverbial top. One wonders: Has he ever raised his voice? Looking like a disappointed college professor, he said:

“I directed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to review aviation screening, technology, and procedures. She briefed me on her initial findings today, and I’m pleased that this review is drawing on the best science and technology, including the expertise of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and his department.”

I’m pleased that this review is drawing on the best science and technology? Whoo—Dad’s mad!

He did, to be sure, go on to say that it was “unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it.” A few days later, it was announced that all flights coming into the U.S. will carry air marshals. And we’re going to order billions of body scanners, just in case more Undie-Bombers get past those eagle-eyes at the NCTC. Meanwhile, in other terrorism-related news, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the cost of trying the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks in New York City will run $200 million— per year.

To his credit, Obama again went before the cameras Thursday and, ripping a page from the JFK post-Bay of Pigs playbook, said that the buck stops with him.

Sangfroid is admirable in a leader—up to a point. But, as Obama acknowledged, we are at war. This makes him a war president, and despite the talk about where the buck stops, there are limits to coolness in the face of the terrible incompetence of Dec. 25. Consider this vignette, from Paul Johnson’s new biography of Winston Churchill:

“He never had to hesitate, except for genuine reasons, before sacking a general, even a popular one like Archibald Wavell, the British commander in Egypt. He felt his authority and exercised it: He was seen walking up and down the empty cabinet room once, after a major sacking, saying aloud, ‘I want them to feel my power.’ Churchill was overwhelmingly admired, even loved, but also feared.”

Who feels Obama’s power? This being the United States, no one has been fired, no one has resigned. If it were Japan, the people in charge would be hacking off their pinkies and going door to door, personally apologizing. If it were England, the Prime Minister’s Questions would resemble one of the Salem witch trials. If it were France, well, it wouldn’t matter—everyone would be on strike. But absent heads rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, one begins to wonder, who, really, is in charge?

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks—another intelligence failure, for which, at least, someone named Richard A. Clarke manfully stepped to microphone and said, “Your government failed you. I failed you”—it was decided that a Central Intelligence Agency was not good enough. We needed something more central, and if possible, more intelligent. So now we have an Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to supervise the 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies. Did you know that the Coast Guard has an intelligence arm? I didn’t, until about 10 minutes ago. Collectively, these 16 agencies are called the “IC”—intelligence community. And as we know from the movies, they all hate each other. Actually, we know this from the newspapers.

Obama’s chief counter-Undie-Bomber adviser, John O. Brennan, manfully stepped up to the plate and, reprising Clarke’s apologia, said the blame was all his. This was welcome and fine, and is to be applauded, but doesn’t quite solve the structural problems.

The Department of Homeland Security, the one that’s on top of it, has 225,000 employees, roughly the population of Baton Rouge. Its budget is $42 billion, roughly the net worth of Warren Buffett.

In another indication of how complex things have become, Diana West of RealClearPolitics points out that we now have 31 “czars” to oversee various aspects of federal policy. Thirty-one. Got an intractable government problem? No problem—bring in a czar! (I’m thinking of bringing in a czar to do my income taxes.) One wonders: Who did the actual czars bring in when things went to hell? Mad monks. That turned out well. Perhaps we need a security czar. What about Dog the Bounty Hunter? If I were walking toward the gate with my boxers packed with PETN and saw him standing there doing pat-downs, I’d get on the next flight back to Yemen.

Hannah Arendt defined bureaucracy as “the rule of nobody.” In the wake of the date that is thankfully still known as Christmas, it’s worth asking who, really, is in charge? Given how complex it’s all become, perhaps we should outsource the job to the guys at Google. Who wouldn’t feel safer knowing that they were doing the screening?

Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary.