Thursday, June 23, 2005

Reading Richard Posner's Preventing Surprise Attacks

I have just finished reading Judge Richard A. Posner's new book, Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11 (Rowman & Littlefield/Hoover Press 2005). I highly recommend it to anyone trying to sort through the mess of reforms and reform proposals for US intelligence.

The fundamental message of the book is soberly realistic and frankly pessimistic - Judge Posner concludes that there are strong limits, probably already reached, on what can be done to prevent serious surprise attacks, and that the various attempts to reform US intelligence may solve some problems while simultaneously making others worse.

With respect to the 9/11 Commission Report, Judge Posner says:

"In a misguided quest for unanimity, a determination to use the political calendar, and a public relations campaign to force precipitate action on weakly supported proposals for far-reaching organizational change, the 9/11 Commission, abetted by a stampeded Congress, a politically cornered President and a press that failed to subject the Commission's recommendations to the searching scrutiny that the modern press reserves for scandals, disserved the cause of national security in a dangerous era. It did so by successfully promoting a bureaucratic reorganization that is more likely to be a recipe for bureaucratic infighting, impacted communication, diminished performance, tangled lines of command, and lowered morale than an improvement on the previous system."

The book is especially harsh on the 9/11 Commission essentially buying into reforms as proposed by relatives of the 9/11 victims, as though their tragedies somehow made them expert in the security of the country as a whole.

And with respect to surprise attacks generally - after briefly considering Pearl Harbor, the Tet offensive, and the Yom Kippur war, Judge Posner concludes:

"This gives rise to the following paradox: a surprise attack is likelier to succeed when it has a low antecedent possibility of success and the attacker is weak, because on both counts the victim will discount the danger and because the range of possible low-probability attacks by weak adversaries is much greater than the range of possible high-probability attacks by strong ones." (emphasis added)

(Update, June 29, 2005: See also this Washington Post opinion piece by William Odom, "Why the FBI Can't Be Reformed," June 29, 2005, here:)

"The problem is systemic. No one can turn a law enforcement agency into an effective intelligence agency. Police work and intelligence work don't mix. The skills and organizational incentives for each are antithetical. One might just as well expect baseball's Washington Nationals to win football's Super Bowl as believe the FBI can become competent at intelligence work.

Consider the different organizational incentives. FBI officials want arrests and convictions. They want media attention and lots of it. FBI operatives want to make arrests, to "put the cuffs on" wrongdoers. They have little patience for sustained surveillance of a suspect to gain more intelligence. They prefer to gamble on an early arrest and an intimidating interrogation that might gain a confession. To them, sharing intelligence is anathema. Intelligence is something to be used, not shared. Getting the credit is far more important than catching the spy or the terrorist.

Intelligence officials do not want public attention. They want to remain anonymous. They do not need arrest authority. They want to follow spies and terrorists secretly, allowing them to reveal their co-conspirators. Their reward comes from providing intelligence to others, not hiding it. They are quite happy to let the FBI make the arrests and take the credit."

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