Tilting At Windmills

Although the Homeland Security Agency was less than immaculate in its conception–indeed, its announcement seems to have been driven by the desire to keep Coleen Rowley’s testimony that afternoon from dominating the front pages the next morning–it nevertheless strikes me as, on the whole, a good idea. It may have been hastily put together by the Bush administration, but it had already been pretty well thought out by people like Gary Hart, Warren Rudman, and Joe Lieberman.

But if this giant agency is going to work, I suspect it will need bipartisan administrators as well as godfathers. There simply aren’t enough Republicans who have manifested a passion for making government work. (Quick, name three.) If a thoroughly dysfunctional agency like the INS is going to be turned around, it will take someone at the top like James Lee Witt, who did just that for FEMA.

So far, the Bushies have not shown a lot of aptitude for new agency creation. The Transportation Security Agency, founded last October, has only been able to staff one airport. It is for this reason that, while I like the idea of the new agency, I have to be pessimistic about its short-term prospects.

There is also the cart-before-the-horse problem. Even a splendid Homeland Security Agency would be of little use if the CIA and the FBI can’t identify the terrorists it is supposed to keep from doing harm. Both agencies need major reform now, and it seems to me that should have priority over the creation of a new agency. There are far too many examples of the CIA’s haplessness–see the article by Loch Johnson in our July/August 2001 issue–but nothing captures their flavor better than a small one unearthed by The Wall Street Journal‘s David Cloud. It seems that for its information from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, the agency was, on September 11, relying on one agent who spent six months there and six months at his country home in Virginia. The FBI’s mishandling of tips from Kenneth Williams and Coleen Rowley was embarrassing. Now comes the news that the FBI is importing analysts from the CIA which, according to Loch Johnson, an authoritative critic of the agency, is itself short of quality analysts.

Most of the employees at both places are able enough when they start, but as they rise up the ladder, too many become so thoroughly bureaucratized that they are incapable of a thought that is not protective of their own careers or the survival of their bureaucratic unit. They don’t want to have anything to do with something that might get them into trouble or is out of the box. Thus, good ideas from the Phoenix and Minneapolis offices are cut off before they reach the top of the agency. The same turf-conscious bureaucrats are the ones who are behind the mutual jealousies that cause the communication problem between the FBI and CIA.

We must find a way of making sure that these mid-level bureaucrats think twice or three times about squelching something the director should hear, and the way to do that is to make them think the director might find it out anyway. Here’s my solution: George Tenet and Robert Mueller should identify 50 to 100 of their smartest and least bureaucratic subordinates and attach them to the director’s office as extra eyes and ears. They should visit field officers like Rowley and Williams and talk to lower-level employees at the headquarters asking what they know that the director should know but doesn’t. Above all, they should make sure each agency is sharing information with the other.

Finally, however, even a great Homeland Security Agency, and a thoroughly reformed FBI and CIA aren’t going to be able to save us if our foreign policy creates a dozen new terrorists for each one we eliminate. It is therefore essential that Bush cool his obsession with Iraq and concentrate on two things, giving real hope to the Palestinians and giving all possible aid to moderate Muslims against the Islamic extemists who preach hatred and stultify progress for their people.

Wildflowers now bloom earlier in Oxfordshire, England. In fact, 10 of them bloomed from 20 to 55 days earlier on average in the 1990s than they did in the 36 preceding years, according to a study reported in Science magazine. The Palisades neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where I live, is a long way from Oxfordshire, but the trend is the same. This year, the first crocuses appeared in our yard on Jan. 28. When we moved here 40 years ago, the date was around Feb. 14. Daffodils arrived this year on Feb. 28; they used to appear two weeks later. I wonder what it’s like in Crawford, Texas?

You know there’s no bomb in your luggage, and you at least have the comfort of knowing the luggage of the other passengers is subject to some kind of scrutiny. But what about the air cargo? Could a bomb have been stashed in that crate you see being loaded into the hold of your plane? That’s a good question. There is no regular scrutiny of packages and boxes that constitute the cargo of passenger planes. “Cargo is likely to become–and may already be–the primary threat vector in the short term,” says an internal Transportation Security Administration report obtained by The Washington Post. We can laugh at the bureaucratese of “threat vector,” but it’s unlikely we’ll be laughing as we watch the cargo being loaded on the next plane we take. Passenger planes now carry 20 percent of the 12 million tons of cargo transported by American carriers. To repeat, there is no inspection of this cargo.

The situation is almost as bad with seaborne cargo. Only two percent of it is inspected; the other 98 percent could contain anything from a nuclear device to anthrax spores.

“Last year, a New Jersey man pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to smuggling a 60-ton armored riot-control vehicle through a West Coast port,” report Al Baker and John Sullivan of The New York Times. Nothing makes the point better, write Baker and Sullivan, than the “experience of a failed decades-long effort to stop drug smuggling through the ports.”

Of all the clues that the authorities missed that might have alerted them to the fact that something like September 11 was coming, my favorite is the story told by Johnell Bryant of the Department of Agriculture. It seems that Mohammed Atta, the conspiracy ringleader, applied to her for a $650,000 loan to buy a twin-engine crop duster. He also tried to buy an aerial photograph of Washington that hung on her wall, after asking her to point out where the Pentagon and the White House were.

When Bryant told him he could not have the loan, Atta, writes Tina Kelley of The New York Times, “became agitated . . . and asked her what was to prevent him from slitting her throat and stealing money from the safe behind the desk in her Florida office.”

He asked how he could get such training and said that al Qaeda could use someone with her qualifications, telling her about Osama bin Laden, whom he assured her would someday be known as “the world’s greatest leader.” If it hadn’t really happened, this would make a perfect script for “Saturday Night Live.”

Be sure to see The Path To War, HBO’s fascinating docudrama about how LBJ became mired in Vietnam. It is a tad too kind to Johnson, but as the first popular account of the period to display empathy for the beleaguered president, it tilts in a badly needed direction. It joins Thirteen Days, that marvelous movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as rare Hollywood successes at explaining how decisions are made in Washington. Both of these films should become standard features of American history courses.

In all the talk about the failures of the FBI and the CIA, I’ve seen little about the performance of the giant Defense Intelligence Agency. The only clue I’ve found is not comforting. Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough report in their “Inside the Ring” column in The Washington Times that the DIA’s current leader, Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson, is “best known for introducing a corporate-management gimmick called Four Thrusts.'” There may be gimmicks that have worked sometime somewhere, but in my 40 years as a participant in and observer of bureaucracy I have never known one to produce significant positive results. In fact, they usually distract the bureaucrats involved from doing work that counts.

If you’ve ever bought a house, you’re likely to have experienced a shock at what is called the “closing.” Suddenly you’re confronted with an exotic assortment of extra fees for appraisals, credit reports, title searches, and delivery charges. Usually the hapless buyer, anxious to move into his new home, agrees to pay up. Later, if he investigates, he will find that the fees usually represent outrageous markups of the actual cost of the services provided. A credit report that really costs less than $10 is billed at $65. A title search that costs $75 is billed at $175, and sometimes much more, with another $1000 piled on for title insurance. (Query: If the search shows your title is good, why do you need the insurance?) In recent years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has tried to limit some of these phony surcharges. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that the markups are legal. Conservative judges now dominate the federal judiciary. But as we pointed out in Stephen Pomper’s Dec. 1999 article, “The Gipper’s Constitution,” nowhere is the domination more absolute than in the Fourth Circuit. This ruling is an example of the cost to we the people.

When you ask the big shots if it really makes sense to have the war in Afghanistan run from Tampa, Fla., where Central Command is located, they assure you it can be done because of the miracles of modern communication. But now comes The Washington Post‘s Tom Ricks–remember, he’s the fellow who won a Pulitzer for his Pentagon coverage at The Wall Street Journal–to take a look behind these assurances and find that there are problems. The biggest is the vastly different time zones. An urgent situation can develop in Kandahar while the fellows in Tampa are nodding off. Similarly, when the guys at Central Command are wide awake and come up with an inspired idea, fatigue is kicking in for soldiers in Afghanistan.

What does the FBI do when it isn’t following up on leads to terrorists? Obviously, some of its work, like catching regular criminals, is important. But some could easily be dispensed with. An example is the full-field investigation that must be done of every presidential employee. It involves dozens of face-to-face interviews and can take months to complete. For some appointees to sensitive positions, this makes sense. But as my friend Norman Ornstein recently asked, does it make sense for members of the U.S. Holocaust Commission or for a member of the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service?

Speaking of airport security, have you noticed the number of grandmothers and grandfathers being pulled out of the line for greater scrutiny? A recent victim is Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat, age 75. There is an explanation for this phenomenon, and I’m indebted to the Chicago Tribune‘s Jon Hilkevitch for it. A ticket paid for with cash is one of the signals that trigger extra attention from security guards. Many seniors pay for their tickets with a check, which airline computers treat as cash. They also buy trips from tour companies that, according to the Tribune, “record group airline ticket purchases as cash transactions–even if individual customers paid with a credit card.” I have an idea. I have to admit that self-interest is involved, since I, too, am 75. But why don’t the airline and tour companies fix their computers?

Forest Service tanker planes are used to drop flame-retardant chemicals on forest fires. They are often left unattended at remote airfields. They would seem to offer a tempting target for terrorists who could use them to spread harmful chemical or biological agents. But, when the Forest Service was warned of this danger after September 11, according to Philip Shenon of The New York Times, it decided that the risk of its tanker planes being used by terrorists “was not even worth examining closely.”

If that doesn’t curl your hair, consider that the Energy Department’s Inspector General reported a couple of months ago that the department could not account for radioactive materials it had sent abroad under the Atoms for Peace program. These materials could be used to make dirty bombs. So what’s the Energy Department going to do? One division expressed curiosity about what had happened to the material, but the response of another, the National Nuclear Security Administration, was a bureaucratic classic. It said, reports Shenon, that the department had no obligation to look for the materials because “international agreements governing the materials contained no requirement for the United States to track them.”

One reason we need more, rather than less, regulation is that, according to Stephen Labaton of The New York Times, “white-collar corruption seems to be the crime of choice of the baby boom generation.” Every week brings a new company–or its accountant–under investigation for its dubious financial practices. Joseph Wells, an expert on fraud, says there are at least two reasons for this trend.

“Crime is largely a factor of age, and fraud is the crime of choice of the older perpetrator, so as the society ages, you have, and should continue to see, an increase in fraud cases. A second reason is that the education level of society has come up, and the message is clear in the minds of the better-educated public that if you want to commit a crime, fraud is the way to go. The take is better, and the punishment generally is less.”

The question, “Smithers, can you explain why you had to stay at the Ritz,” followed by the justification, “I couldn’t find a room any place else,” is a classic of expense-account culture. The boss can’t challenge the improbability of the excuse unless he has evidence that there actually were lower-cost rooms available that night in that city. For this reason, the more remote the city, the more likely the employee will get away with the Ritz.

This principle has been taken to new heights by Army Special Forces, who have been staying at the five-star Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel in Georgia. Why can’t the Army check up on hotels in Atlanta or Savannah or wherever, you may ask? Well, we aren’t talking about that Georgia–it’s the former Soviet Union’s Georgia, surrounded by Russia, Turkey, and Armenia, and not a regular stop for Pentagon auditors. Thus, the special forces can assert, without fear of contradiction, that, as The Washington Post‘s Al Kamen reports, they “searched high and low” for less expensive accommodations, but were forced to settle for the Sheraton with its heated indoor and outdoor pools, King Gorgasali gourmet restaurant, Slammers Pub, and hypoallergenic pillows.

A group of victims of priestly abuse are suing to void secrecy provisions in their settlement agreements with the church. These agreements should be outlawed. They are used to keep the public from finding out what it should know. It’s not just a matter of parents being able to discover that they shouldn’t send their children to be altar boys at Father Pedophile’s church; it’s a much broader problem. How can patients know that Dr. X is a butcher when they don’t know the terms of his malpractice settlements? How can they find out that Factory X is killing people with its pollution if previous victims have signed secrecy agreements?

Of course the people who have signed the agreements share a bit of the blame. But they are often desperate to recover the cost of medical care they have incurred because of the bad guys’ behavior. Even when greed is the main reason for their agreeing to secrecy, that should not obscure the public’s right to know the facts of these cases. Just consider these examples from the Coalition for Consumer Rights on the needless fatalities for which secrecy agreements are responsible:

Since the apparent alternatives to Arafat are more radical than he is, I’ve wondered why Sharon is so determined to get rid of him. Now we have an explanation from James Bennet of The New York Times, who says this about Sharon and his followers: “They argue that chaos or the rise of militants in the West Bank and Gaza would substitute a clear extremism for Mr. Arafat’s ambiguity and his ability to command credence and sympathy overseas.” In other words, getting rid of Arafat, who despite his many faults has recognized Israel’s right to exist, would leave Palestine directed by people who are publicly committed to the destruction of Israel and who thus would not attract support from the rest of the world.

Guess which journalist wrote that George W. Bush is not going to take on Sharon because it would jeopardize his brother Jeb’s election prospects in Florida, where a significant proportion of the electorate is Jewish? Was it a Palestinian? Was it an American lefty? Or was it an Israeli? The answer is a writer from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “With so many Jewish votes in that state, Bush is not likely to do anything that would alienate Jewish voters–whose support for the Republicans is growing–by going head-to-head with Ariel Sharon.”

Scott Shuger, who was killed in a scuba-diving accident in June, worked here from 1989 to 1991 alongside first Jason DeParle and then James Bennet, both of whom went on to distinguished careers at The New York Times. He was the prime mover in the selection of Katherine Boo as his successor, and, Boo, of course, went on to win a Pulitzer at The Washington Post. None of these stars shines brighter than Scott. He was an original both in background–not many people come to journalism with a Ph.D. in philosophy and five years’ experience in naval intelligence–and in the way he thought. He could show liberals why they were wrong in thinking all the homeless needed was housing, and he could show conservatives, in an article that was a dozen years ahead of its time, how the accounting industry made a mockery of their uncritical faith in the market economy. Under Slate‘s Michael Kinsley, Scott went on to become one of the most acclaimed practitioners of Internet journalism. With all this, he was an incredibly nice guy, great fun to be with, much loved by his colleagues. I can still see the laughter in his eyes. His presence is so vivid, so beguiling, that I know he will live until the last of his friends is gone. And even then, his reporting will endure as an example to journalists of what they should try to do.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.