Wednesday, April 6, 2011

9/11 and Amy Zegart’s Spying Blind: An Analysis

In Amy Zegart's 2007 book, Spying Blind, she posits that the successful terrorist attacks by al Qaeda against the United States on September 11, 2001, were a result of decades-old, and inherent, organizational weaknesses in the U.S. intelligence agencies that were tasked with preventing them, and enduring impediments which made fixing those weaknesses difficult. Specifically, she puts forth that these weaknesses include the nature of organizations, which makes internal reform exceedingly difficult; the rational self-interest of presidents, legislators, and government bureaucrats, which works against executive branch reform; and finally, the fragmented structure of the federal government, which erects high barriers to legislative reform. Zegart goes on to contend that too much blame has been placed on the shoulders of individuals such as former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and that the real culprit deserving blame is the overall organizational orientation of the American national security system prior to 9/11. Adaptation is her key word – a failure at adaptation to be specific: "It was the stunning inability of the U.S. intelligence agencies to adapt to the end of the Cold War" (Zegart, p.3).

While I do not disagree with Zegart's thesis outright, and believe her assumptions and conclusions about organizations to be sound, she seems to have a conflicted viewpoint on the subject. On the one hand she is highly critical of the U.S. for not adapting quickly enough to the new jihadist terrorist threat after the end of the Cold War in 1991. But on the other, she makes the point that inherent organizational weaknesses are to blame for the apparently slow adaptation. If these weaknesses are inherent, then is it correct to be so critical when their presence creates less than desirable results? I think not. "U.S. intelligence agencies…did not, however, adjust to this emerging threat as fast or as fully as they could have before the September 11, 2001, attacks" (Zegart, p.41). Additionally, it will be interesting to see how future historians categorize the ten-year time period between 1991 and 9/11: will they view it as plenty of time for adaptation to take place, not enough, or just the right amount? I imagine it will be one of the latter. Zegart's own definition of adaptation implies that it is a process that requires some time, "When basic organizational boundaries shift, when organizations assume major, new, nonroutine tasks, or when they go about their old tasks with substantially different structures, processes, or beliefs, adaptation has occurred" (Zegart, p.16).     

In my opinion, U.S. intelligence agencies adapted as quickly as could have been expected given the circumstances and constraints placed upon them by the system in which they operated. This viewpoint is actually Zegart's own antithesis to her argument, and she dutifully points it out on page fifteen of her work. While obviously not perfect, Zegart does not make a conclusive case that U.S. intelligence agencies were not operating at an optimal level throughout the 1990s, which were a time when the world was witnessing dramatic and significant change from an international security perspective. Being optimal does not mean being perfect, but she seems to confuse the two when quoting - then critiquing - the following statement by Richard Betts in Foreign Affairs magazine shortly after 9/11, "The awful truth is that even the best intelligence systems will have big failures" (Zegart, p.5). Zegart winces at the idea that the U.S. system might have been considered a best intelligence system prior to 9/11, but who is to say it was not? As Paul Pillar points out in his critique of her book, Zegart uses instances of tactical intelligence failure as proof that the system was broken from an overall strategic intelligence standpoint (Foreign Affairs, April 2008, para.16). "She attributes…the CIA's failure to place terrorist suspects on a watch list before 9/11 to the agency's not being 'in the habit' of doing so. In fact, this lapse represented a failure to apply well-established and frequently used watch-listing procedures" (Pillar, para.13).

Zegart is correct when she states that there were, and are, inherent organizational weaknesses in the U.S. intelligence system that have led to deficiencies in performance. However, no system is perfect, and if one were to rely on her conclusions, then the U.S. intelligence agencies have no hope at being successful in the future. She believes that most of the intelligence reform process since 9/11 has failed to adapt to the terrorist threat, and that these same inherent organizational faults are still at work. In fact, as she pointed out in 2007, even though the U.S. has not been successfully attacked by jihadist terrorists since 9/11 "there is little evidence to suggest that effective intelligence is the reason" (Zegart, p.196). There is also little evidence to suggest that it is not the reason. It is now 2011 and the U.S. is still yet to be successfully attacked by jihadist terrorists. Therefore, it is hard for me not to disagree more with the following quote from Zegart's text, "Nevertheless, two things are already clear: 9/11 was not enough to jolt U.S. intelligence agencies out of their Cold War past, and future adaptation – to terrorism or any other threat – is unlikely…Adaptation is not impossible, but it is close" (Zegart, p.170). From passage of the National Security Act of 1947, to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. intelligence community was oriented toward a monolithic enemy which it soundly defeated. Ten years later it was apparent that a new enemy had emerged, and the mechanisms of the U.S. government went to work shifting its orientation to face that new enemy. Now, after another ten years, the U.S. has not witnessed another catastrophic terrorist attack. Zegart believes ten years is enough time to condemn the U.S. for its failure to adapt to the terrorist threat, but now, ten years later, is it maybe not time to praise it for an adaptation well done? "History suggests that transformative change rarely occurs during ordinary times. Instead, dramatic departures from the past often require a large external shock – a tragedy, catastrophic failure…or focusing event that…exposes the dangers of the status quo" (Zegart, p.169).

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