Posted by: mutantpoodle | January 8, 2010

Off with their heads!

Cartoon by Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker

Andrew Sullivan thinks someone should be fired over the intelligence failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to get on that Christmas Day Northwest flight to Detroit. More specifically, he thinks the message President Obama sends by NOT firing anyone is that no one is accountable for their mistakes:

Here’s what that says to the men and women of the security and intelligence institutions of government who failed us: you will never be fired, and you will never face real consequences for failing to do your job competently.

And when a system never holds any of its specific members responsible, there is no direct incentive to get things right. This is simply human nature and one reason people are rightly deeply skeptical of government is its use of its monopoly power to prevent itself from ever being held as accountable as any other human being in any other line of work.

Well, maybe.  John Cole asks a pertinent question – who should be fired? Some knives are out for National Counterterrorism Director Michael Leiter, who went on vacation after the incident was over but was not exactly in communicado. Leiter is a Bush holdover, which has caused some gymnastics among those cravenly politicizing this near-miss. But firing someone to scare other people has limited value, if any: fearful people are not effective. If management fires someone without a discernible cause, people will worry, at the cost of their effectiveness, about how to keep their own jobs. If someone fails to follow protocols that are in place, then you should think about letting them find other work.

I’d also note that there’s a tremendous learning curve involved in analyzing this kind of intelligence.  Perhaps keeping people around, as long as they learn from their mistakes, is a better plan?

For what it’s worth, here is Obama addressing the systemic changes he is ordering:

First, I’m directing that our intelligence community immediately begin assigning specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively — not just most of the time, but all of the time.  We must follow the leads that we get.  And we must pursue them until plots are disrupted.  And that mean assigning clear lines of responsibility.

Second, I’m directing that intelligence reports, especially those involving potential threats to the United States, be distributed more rapidly and more widely.  We can’t sit on information that could protect the American people.

Third, I’m directing that we strengthen the analytical process, how our analysis — how our analysts process and integrate the intelligence that they receive.  My Director of National Intelligence, Denny Blair, will take the lead in improving our day-to-day efforts.  My Intelligence Advisory Board will examine the longer-term challenge of sifting through vast universes of intelligence and data in our Information Age.

And finally, I’m ordering an immediate effort to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to our terrorist watchlists, especially the “no fly” list.  We must do better in keeping dangerous people off airplanes, while still facilitating air travel.

Just as important, Obama demonstrated that he is a first-rate manager:

Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer.  For ultimately, the buck stops with me.  As President, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people.  And when the system fails, it is my responsibility.

In my old world, mistakes didn’t have life-and-death consequences, and when they happened, my focus was on how to keep them from happening again.  One upside? People who worked for me didn’t hide their mistakes from me, and our work got progressively better over time.

Talking Points Memo has assembled a chronology of what was known when about Abdulmutallab. One problem? His name was mis-spelled. And yes – someone going from Nigeria to Detroit with a just small carry-on bag should have been questioned more strenuously. But Obama doesn’t run Airport Security in Lagos (or Amsterdam, for that matter). What he does run is the National Security apparatus of the United States, and, seemingly alone in Washington, he is treating its shortcomings like a rational adult.

As David Brooks wrote,

In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways.

I actually think most Americans understand that concept. It’s the opposition party that is wallowing in childishness.


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