December 5, 2005

Commission, Heal Thyself

Hatched by Dafydd

The 9/11 Commission, now under private funding, has met a final time to offer a "report card" on the actions taken by "the government" to safeguard American lives and property, infrastructure, and economic activity from further terrorist attacks. The report is being played by the mainstreamers as a scathing repudiation of Bush and the Republicans; and to some extent, it's clearly intended as such: the commissioners, including the Republican members, seem to have gone out of their way at the press conference and in interviews to imply absolute inactivity and inertia, complete incompetence, and a total lack of concern, while offering virtually no examples of such malfeasance in the actual document itself.

Alack, the 9/11 Commission, drunk on its own vision of absolute moral authority and intellectual superiority, has fallen into hectoring and preening, like a nagging starlet who has detailed suggestions for running the entire movie studio -- and flies into a rage when you don't jump to obey. Thank goodness this will be the last such report from them.

The final report is very long on general handwaving but quite short on specifics; nor does it recognize the difference between recommending that something should be done and actually offering a plan how to do it (for example, developing a bioletric entry-exit screening system for all of our airports and seaports); nor does the report discriminate between suggestions that actually might improve our security -- such as checked bag and cargo screening -- and administrative or organizational changes that merely reflect the commissioners' preferences for how the org-charts should look.

For a good example of this last, one of the D grades is for Intelligence oversight reform:

The House and Senate have taken limited positive steps, including the creation of oversight subcommittees. However, the ability of the intelligence committees to perform oversight of the intelligence agencies and account for their performance is still undermined by the power of the Defense Appropriations subcommittees and Armed Services committees.

First, this clearly has nothing to do with President Bush, who has zero influence over the structure of congressional committees. Second, it's difficult to imagine a more savage catfight than that between the chairs and ranking members of various committees over the distribution of oversight power. Third, this is another "move the boxes around" type of "reform," similar to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security: in itself, shifting "oversight" of intelligence agencies from one House or Senate committee to another does absolutely nothing to improve either the intelligence itself or the analysis of it.

The commissioners have no suggestions for resolving -- indeed, do not even seem to be aware of -- the structural political barriers blocking some of their vague suggested reforms. Under new missions for CIA Director, one of only two recommendations to receive a grade of "incomplete," we read:

Reforms are underway at the CIA, especially of human intelligence operations. But their outcome is yet to be seen. If the CIA is to remain an effective arm of national power, Congress and CIA leadership need to be committed to accelerating the pace of reforms, and must address morale and personnel issues.

Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn't it? But taking into consideration that the president and the Republicans cannot even seem to stop top CIA officials from leaking critical classified information designed to damage President Bush and thwart any attempt to reform the CIA's mission or methods -- and given the support of congressional Democrats for just such behavior -- how exactly are these "new missions" to be carried out by Porter Goss? The Democrats on the Commission missed an excellent opportunity to chastise their own party for enabling such destructive behavior.

If the commission had gotten specific here with suggestions, based upon expert evaluations from current or former directors of intelligence agencies in other countries (Mossad, MI5), exactly how the CIA could be reformed, giving such specific reforms the same sort of momentum that forced the creation of the DHS itself, that would have been helpful. But as it stands, this directive is vague to the point of vapidity, coming across as one of those "all right, then nobody gets the toy!" generic shouts by a harried parent who cannot take the time to determine which kid is actually causing the problem.

I remain unimpressed. Some recommendations are good and fairly specific: standardize secure identifications, homeland airspace defense, international broadcasting; the recommendation under that last header is clear and specific:

Budgets for international broadcasting to the Arab and Muslim world and U.S.-sponsored broadcasting hours have increased dramatically, and audience shares are growing. But we need to move beyond audience size, expose listeners to new ideas and accurate information about the U.S. and its policies, and measure the impact and influence of these ideas.

But other recommendations, especially those under the Nonproliferation and Foreign Policy subheads, are almost aggressively silly.

Maximum effort by U.S. government to secure WMD (D) Countering the greatest threat to America’s security is still not the top national security priority of the President and the Congress....

Support reform in Saudi Arabia (D)
Saudi authorities have taken initial steps but need to do much more to regulate charities and control the flow of funds to extremist groups, and to promote tolerance and moderation. A U.S.-Saudi strategic dialogue to address topics including reform and exchange programs has just started; there are no results to report....

Coalition strategy against Islamist terrorism (C)
Components of a common strategy are evident on a bilateral basis, and multilateral policies exist in some areas. But no permanent contact group of leading governments has yet been established to coordinate a coalition counterterrorism strategy.

Coalition standards for terrorist detention (F)
The U.S. has not engaged in a common coalition approach to developing standards for detention and prosecution of captured terrorists. Indeed, U.S. treatment of detainees has elicited broad criticism, and makes it harder to build the necessary alliances to cooperate effectively with partners in a global war on terror.

First, our "treatment of detainees has elicited broad criticism" based primarily upon deliberate lies and malicious slanders spread by the terrorists and their supporters themselves, which are seized upon by our supposed allies in order to thwart our aggressive response to such terrorism -- and trumpeted by news agencies eager to see the defeat of Bush and the Republican Congress.

The reason that "no permanent contact group of leading governments has yet been established to coordinate a coalition counterterrorism strategy" is that there is no agreement among Western nations how to counter terrorism in the first place: we favor forward engagement of the terrorists; the Europeans primarily want to treat terrorism as a police issue and pretend the danger is just overblown. The American president and Congress cannot compel France to take terrorism more seriously; nor can we stop Belgium and the Netherlands from treating the "rights" of terrorists as more important than securing Western democracy itself from attack.

The idea that it's up to the United States to reform Saudi Arabia is simply laughable. Were it not for the insanity of al-Qaeda and its affilliates, who lauched a series of attacks on the kingdom and have openly called for regicide and revolution, Saudi Arabia would still be allied with them... and would be doing nothing. What leverage does the Commission imagine we have over that terrorist haven wallowing in the world's largest oil reserves? Do they think our allies (and for that matter, all of the billion Moslems in the world) would possibly sit still for an American invasion of Saudi Arabia -- including conquering Mecca itself? There are some things we simply have little effect upon, Commissioners. This is one of them.

And finally, the commissioners' demand that they be allowed to determine "the top national security priority of the President and the Congress" demonstrates less of a commitment to securing the country than the feeding of an already rather colossal ego. Nobody elected any of these commissioners to run national security; that job belongs to George Bush... along with the authority to determine whether WMD proliferation or some other challenge should be the top priority of American foreign and military policy.

Besides, since every action against terrorism can be defined as preventing the proliferation of WMD to terrorists -- dead terrorists can't shoot chemical weapons against us -- this "recommendation" is really little more than generalized petulance at not being considered the chief advisory panel to the president, supplanting the cabinet, the National Security Council, and Congress.

I believe the 9/11 Commission has some good recommendations; but they are not the last word on what America needs to do to reduce (it cannot be ended) the threat from terrorist attack upon the homeland... and they certainly should not be taken as the ultimate authority on exactly how such lofty goals should be carried out. Congress and the president need to stop kow-towing to Chairman Keane and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton and actually subject the Commission reports -- including this one -- to decide which recommendations actually make sense, and which should be rejected or placed upon the back burner.

There is some worthwhile stuff in the final report of the 9/11 Commission; but they need a good editor.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 5, 2005, at the time of 2:52 PM

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The following hissed in response by: John_B

I think that the US can usefully keep pressure on Saudi Arabia to continue its path toward reform. Things like the different reports--Religious Freedom, Trafficking in Persons, Human Rights--especially when referred to from on high, do help.

But pressure can also be over-applied and thus counterproductive. Congressional attempts to punish the country by, say, attempting to block the KSA's entry into the WTO, are not in the least helpful, except perhaps in putting smiles on some constituents' faces.

The above hissed in response by: John_B [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 5, 2005 3:50 PM

The following hissed in response by: matoko kusanagi

Look, the 911 commission was always a useless political circus. If you want some value out of it, start screaming to your congressperson that they need to redact the closed door session and publish it.
The elephant in the room is that we didn't have much intel. Toricelli and the "peace dividend" pretty much gutted our HUMINT intel nets. hafta wonder how they assured that our new field operatives weren't "unsavoury criminals" as well as foreign nationals fluent in arabic. ;)
Did they run SBI's on them?

The above hissed in response by: matoko kusanagi [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 5, 2005 9:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: unaha-closp

Leverage - use of a lever over a point of balance to force an action to occur.

America is the worlds superpower, buys more weapons than the rest of the world combined. America is has the second largest free market in the world. America has in the past 50 years intervened covertly in several countries much more powerful and stable than Saudi Arabia. From the Indonesian coup to people power in Ukraine there have been spectacular successes.

Saudi Arabia is a corrupt fiefdom, run by a theocracy and a large family. They are armed with 2 camels and a stick. The state religion requires that Americans are despised as a sub-categiory of humanity. The Saud family uses the leverage of oil money (indirect political payments, arms purchases, real estate investment, well funded PR and oil contracts) to ensure that it is impossible for America to influence them.

You are correct, America for all its power is on the short end of a very long stick and can do nothing against Saudi Arabia. It has no leverage.

The above hissed in response by: unaha-closp [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 6, 2005 1:49 PM

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