Richard A. Posner does not simply point to feet of clay. He attacks them with hammer, tongs and clarity of insight when it comes to the dangers of the ragged overhaul of U.S. intelligence that Congress and the Bush administration now pursue.
By Posner's lights, the Sept. 11 commission, with the help of indolent and uncritical media, stampeded panicky politicians into "a premature, ill-considered commitment" to an intelligence reform that will do little to improve this nation's security against surprise attack.
By declaring relatives of the Sept. 11 terrorists' victims its "partners" and giving them a platform, the commission "lent a further unserious note to the project. . . . One can feel for the families' loss and understand their indignation . . . without thinking that the status of being a victim's relative is a qualification for opining on how the victim's death might have been prevented."
And he points to this fundamental flaw in the way the commission was organized: "To combine an investigation of the attacks (the causes, the missed opportunities, and the responses) with recommendations for preventing future attacks is the same mistake as combining intelligence and policy. The means believed available for solving a problem influence how the problem is understood and described."
This is the policymaker's equivalent of every problem looking like a nail if you have only a hammer: If bureaucratic reorganization is the only obvious answer, bureaucratic failure had to be the problem from the outset. Ergo, blame the spies for intelligence failure and centralize: Create a director of national intelligence (DNI) and draw a new organization chart for the nation's overlapping but uncommunicative spy agencies.
Posner, a federal appeals court judge in Chicago, a law professor and a prolific author of books on public policy, makes these points in "Preventing Surprise Attacks," a bold and welcome antidote to the commission fatigue settling over a Washington awash with reports and congressional hearings on intelligence failure and reform.
It provides the starting point for a useful reassessment of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States nine months after that body's report was issued and as President Bush's first director of national intelligence prepares to take office.
Posner's short book asks big questions that were skirted in last week's minutiae-drenched hearings on the nominations of John Negroponte to be DNI and John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations. Those hearings shifted attention away from where it should now be focused.
The senators' questions and statements suggested that improving intelligence and protecting it from "politicization" will provide a shield against surprise attacks and other international harm.
But that approach treats intelligence as an exact science that produces clear truths. It vastly overestimates the perfectibility and efficiency of centralized bureaucracies in general and spy agencies in particular. The senators also inadvertently deemphasize the urgent need to fund and organize the civil defense and other "first responder" programs that will be needed to battle terrorist attacks that do get through.
Negroponte dutifully promised to call 'em as he sees 'em and to give the president "the unvarnished truth." That pacified the senators, who could have more usefully spent the time reading Posner's explanation as to why adding one more rung in "the ladder of command" will ensure that "less information will reach the top" than before.
The careerist imperative in Washington "is based on the known reluctance of civil servants, even those not involved with classified materials, to share information with their superiors," the judge writes. Instead, the bureaucracy strives to maintain "the knowledge deficit" that a political appointee brings to a new post. A knowledgeable policymaker quickly becomes his or her own intelligence agent, developing outside sources and discounting what subordinates provide.
That sounds cynical. But it has a ring of truth. Congress can pretend to be no better. The overlapping, overextended and highly politicized oversight committees that deal with intelligence continue to resist reforming themselves. They instead shift blame to the spies and the rest of the administration and the conflicts between them.
Posner paints with such vivid and broad strokes that he at times goes astray. He underestimates, for example, the potential for civil liberties abuses that would accompany the centralization of domestic intelligence in an MI-5-type organization.
But Posner's demystification of the Sept. 11 commission and of the role of the Sept. 11 families in the "massive public relations effort" to win public support "before the report could be read" is timely and pertinent. You can't read this book and come away believing that Congress has fixed the problem.