Fifty Little CIAs

If President Obama wants to protect America from terrorist attacks, he should begin by dismantling the gigantic bureaucracies we’ve built to fight it—and empowering the locals.

Last week, President Obama scolded his national-security team for failing to prevent the attempted bombing of a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day. He spoke bitterly of unconnected dots, “a screwup that could have been disastrous,” and pointedly warned the assembled worthies that future failures would not be tolerated. Weary airport travelers already forced to strip down to their underwear might count themselves lucky that al Qaeda has not yet concealed explosives in suppositories. But eight years after the September 11 attacks, are we still sitting ducks, calmly awaiting new disasters?

After a year in office, Obama may now realize that the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence—parallel post-9/11 “reforms” passed by large congressional majorities—are two ponderous and utterly hide-bound bureaucracies. Estimates vary but at least 16 known or suspected intelligence agencies were ordered to start sharing information and connecting dots under the new DNI superstructure. In similarly haphazard fashion, several dozen disparate federal agencies were thrown together (or possibly under the bus) to form DHS. The easily foreseeable consequences: The new agencies still lack common ZIP codes or travel agents, much less common databases.

The best role for the states in homeland defense is to provide a network of networks–50 laboratories for determining what works and what works best.

Apparently neither Congress nor the Bush administration ever wondered if creating new bureaucracies was the best way to combat aggressive, adaptive terrorist networks. Terrorists make mistakes too but are relentlessly attentive in exploiting uncorrected bureaucratic weaknesses. One recent example: the devilishly sophisticated attack that used a Jordanian double agent as a suicide bomber and killed seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan. The subtitle of the management classic, The Spider and the Starfish, suggests that such networks draw upon “the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”

In Washington, there is no shortage of organizations headed by appointed or elected leaders—but also stoppages and screwups galore. If we are to reverse the current top-down pyramid of our defense and intelligence hierarchies, three departures seem critical:

1. DHS as presently organized is not the answer (and maybe not DNI either). The creation of DHS did not alter the constitutional division of power between the feds (national defense) and the states (police powers, domestic security). However, it provided the comforting illusion that improvements were under way—to share information and to centralize otherwise uncoordinated efforts. Instead we created a new bureaucracy that has been notoriously resistant to innovation or outside ideas. Even worse: We centralized security tax dollars inside Washington while continuing to act as if DHS owned those dollars and controlled every domestic contingency.

2. Federalism works. After September 11, the states assumed that the longstanding imbalance between their day-to-day responsibilities for homeland defense and their available tax base would finally be corrected: It was not. The best role for the states in homeland defense is to provide a network of networks—50 laboratories for determining what works and what works best. Because authority and expertise already reside at local levels, why not build a new network that is strategically managed but leverages the existing capabilities of sheriffs, state and local police as well as first responders?

3. Use open-source intelligence organizations to link local law enforcement and discipline the intelligence hierarchies. It is an article of faith among first responders that our national intelligence agencies refuse to give them “the good stuff.” The reality is that the intelligence community knows surprisingly little that really matters to the cop on the beat even if the officer was cleared to receive it. One answer is open-source intelligence, especially when developed by public-private partnerships that get paid for being right rather than for being present when appropriations are doled out. Equally important: moving from open-source intelligence (comparing hard-copy documents) to open-media intelligence (a trademark of the Unrestricted Warfare Analysis Center), which encompasses digital data, social networking and even posted videos, YouTube being only one example.

The potential for open-source intelligence to address new terrorist threats is suggested by my article in the current edition of the national security journal ORBIS. The result of an open-media intelligence project with the Unrestricted Warfare Analysis Center, the article documents some alarming new possibilities for working partnerships between Islamic terrorists and the Mexican drug cartels. Operating covertly from our increasingly violent southern border, the cartels now have an identifiable presence in as many as 200 American cities. While it may be wishful thinking, al Qaeda has boasted of smuggling anthrax over that border, possibly by the same tunnels and routes used to move drugs and illegal immigrants. Unlike hierarchies, networks seek out partners even if their basic goals differ, appreciate the value of tight security, and are utterly unforgiving of mistakes.

While the technologies for attacking, defending against and identifying threats are new, the problem is not. In his foreword to the classic study on Pearl Harbor, Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, “The results at Pearl Harbor were sudden, concentrated and dramatic. The failure however, was cumulative, widespread and rather drearily familiar.” He wrote those words in 1962 but they would have been equally appropriate for the 9/11 Commission–or at White House meetings in 2010.

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 a military analyst with NBC News.