The System That Fails

David Brooks wrote an intelligent, thought-provoking article in the New York Times a couple of days ago [1] entitled “The God That Fails“. It’s a pleasure to read such articles from political conservatives, in contrast to the largely incoherent and inconsistent rantings from the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. The Brooks article was a reflection on the recent terrorist attempt on the plane bound for Detroit.

One key point of the article is that regardless of the measures that we put in place, there will be circumstances at which they fail. In his words, “Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.” I agree with that. He also goes on to state that much of the criticism of the Obama Administration “has been contemptuous and hysterical.” I agree with that and his assertion that calls for the resignation of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security won’t fix the problem. We are going to have incidents regardless of the political party controlling the White House or Congress.

Much of the current security is simply theatre and does nothing to enhance security in any meaningful way. We should, as Brooks asserts, be mature enough to hear the truth – that terrorists are going to get through sometimes. He castigates us for not being a mature nation and criticizes Obama specifically for stating “I consider that [intelligence failure] totally unacceptable.” Brooks asserts that the Obama statement is a reflection of a nanny state that has emerged in the last half-century.

There are two reasons why Obama made that statement and neither is a nanny-state syndrome. The first is political. If Obama would state that some terrorists are going to get through, he would be fodder for conservative pundits. You can see it now – “Obama admits that their approach to counter-terrorism failed.” Sadly, political pressures prevents complete candor, especially at the current level of political polarization.

The second and more salient reason Obama stated that is because it actually is unacceptable. I recently completed a project for the Department of Defense that was specifically assessing the cultural and technological reasons why there are intelligence failures in connecting the dots. I can tell you from that experience, there are things that can be done better.

Brooks postulates that “Many people seem to be in the middle of a religious crisis of faith. All the gods they believe in — technology, technocracy, centralized government control — have failed them in this instance.” He lost me there. I can’t tell if “many people” are the bureaucrats or the electorate, but I suspect this leap was to reinforce his notion that centralized government control is wrong-headed.

To those who implement it and use it, technology is a tool, not a “god” in which we have faith. This issue has nothing to do with centralized government control, either. In fact, the technological part of our recommendation to the Department of Defense was to use technology that enables decentralized management of intelligence information, while still being able to interoperate among agencies – possibly down to local law enforcement – in order to connect the dots. The facts of my experience just don’t support his assertions.

Brooks did make some good points, however.  He almost lost me out of the gate with his revisionist history that “the Federal Reserve and the Congress exacerbated the Great Depression“, but he recovered in his realization of the need to view the threat of terrorism in a realistic and mature way. When he tries to morph that notion into the conservative memes of the nanny-state, or the failure of centralized government, he fails to make a solid case.



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