In Intel as in Health Care (as in Everything Else): Bigger Government Is Worse Government

In what is shaping up as a major intelligence debacle on Obama’s watch, Dennis Blair looms as the official most likely to be thrown under the Obama Bus. (You may recall him as the National Intelligence Director who suggested that we not only release Gitmo detainees to live here among us but also put them on public welfare so American taxpayers could pay for the privilege of living side-by-side with jihadists dedicated to killing them).  It’s worth remembering, though, that the Office of the National Intelligence Director, like the Department of Homeland Security, is an ill-considered legacy of the vastly overrated 9/11 Commission.

Government’s default answer to any situation (or “crisis”) in which government has performed poorly is the creation of more government. As many of us have observed several times, however, if your problem is poor information sharing — the failure to get intelligence into the right hands — you don’t improve that situation/crisis by . . . creating a new and inevitably bloating bureaucracy to ride herd over the old, bloated bureaucracies.

Big government types (mostly Democrats, but there are plenty of in-Washington-too-long Republicans who fit into this category) always think that we can improve performance by making the organization bigger and getting the org-chart just so. But anyone who’s worked in government for any length of time can tell you that government is preternaturally lethargic. What matters is not the structure but the people. It takes a smart, driven Rudy Giuliani-type to make it work. If you don’t have that, you’re going to get a lot of databases that can’t communicate with each other, and a lot of inter-agency meetings where a lot of information gets exchanged – but a lot doesn’t – and none of it ever makes it to the no-fly list. 

Anyhow, here’s what I wrote back in early 2007, when Democrats, having just taken over Congress, made a big show of pretending to adopt all the 9/11 Commission’s theretofore un-enacted recommendations:

The peremptory call to adopt more of the Commission’s recommendations seems especially foolish at the moment. For it’s been only a few days since John Negroponte announced that, after less than two years on the job (i.e., right in the middle of a seismic restructuring of the $40-plus-billion intelligence community, and while the nation is at war, no less), he is vacating the perch atop the Commission’s crown jewel, the National Intelligence Directorate.

The Commission, you see, decided that the underperformance of U.S. intelligence must have been a function of its corporate organizational chart. Thus, so the argument went, such problems as “group think” and lack of information-sharing would somehow be solved by … more bureaucracy. To address the sprawl of over 15 diverse components within an intelligence community lumbering under the coordination, but not the control, of the CIA director, the Commission agitated for the creation of yet another component. The leadership of a director of National Intelligence with his own new fiefdom, it hypothesized, would better coordinate the coordination.

Predictably, rather than streamlining, the result has been mission confusion and bureaucratic bloat. DNI Negroponte has been sharply criticized on both sides of the political aisle for empire-building. At over 1,500 members, his staff grew to over twice the size and several times the budget originally anticipated (and, remember, that’s after less than two years). The DNI, moreover, is now plagued by the same impossible burdens that, historically, have undermined more than a few CIA directors: responsibility without authority and more hats — coordinator, analyst, and top presidential adviser — than even the most dedicated, sleep-deprived public servant can competently wear.

Small wonder, then, that thoughtful, nonpartisan experts like Judge Richard A. Posner and Ivan Eland have forcefully called for a reassessment of the Commission’s chimera. As Jessica Mathews, president of the left-leaning Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently observed, “I don’t think this is a Negroponte issue[.]…The model that Congress adopted was a mistake. It does build a bureaucracy on top of a bureaucracy.”

The moral of the story is that a single strong CIA director — with the ear of an engaged president and a good working relationship with a single strong FBI director and an intelligence-savvy defense secretary — would give us a lot more security and cost us a ton less than these new, post-9/11 monstrosities. Streamlined and accountable is better than sprawl. If we don’t do a better job of picking people, all the government in the world can’t help us.  In the end, it always does more harm than good.

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