A Pride of Wrong Answers

You might think, if only for the sake of increasing the entertainment value if not for the perhaps more worthy goal of getting a wider array of viewpoints, that they would include a wild card or two on some of these dreary government commissions – especially on something so important as how the United States was taken by surprise on September 11, 2001. I’m not so far out of touch as to imagine that they might include somebody like Justin Raimondo, although he would certainly have livened up the proceedings. But why not have somebody besides a certified representative of one of the two branches of the Government Party?

How about a senior writer from the Nation, or Reason magazine, or Lew Rockwell or the irascible Tom Fleming of Chronicles of Culture.? Maybe Ted Carpenter of Christopher Preble from the Cato Institute? Perhaps retired University of California political science professor Chalmers Johnson, author of the recent book, The Sorrows of Empire – who worked for the CIA for a while back in the Cold War era) or Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, author of American Empire?

Even with one of those worthies to ask pointed questions, however, I probably would not have heard what I was longing to hear: One of the commission members “slipping” and asking a question of “Secretary Halfbright,” perhaps. Or somebody beginning a question to Colin Powell with something like: “You have shown unparalleled competence at climbing the slippery pole of bureaucratic power, massaging the media and sucking up to superiors. How could you let this stupid war happen – or why didn’t you resign in protest?”


Alas, ’twas not to be and probably will never be. The purpose of the commission, as anyone with much experience even as an observer of the ways of the belly of the beast, was not to get to the truth about how badly the intelligence function was flubbed prior to 9/11, but to give everybody involved, even marginally, an opportunity to offer a reasonably plausible explanation for their utter incompetence and make it look as if the government is really interested in protecting us more efficiently and effectively. Even the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, normally a fairly reliable flack for the Republican-oriented wing of the power that be, found the proceedings mildly distressing.

“People in government who’ve achieved a certain position in foreign affairs,” she wrote, “tend to treat gingerly people in government who’ve achieved a certain position in foreign affairs. They are on the same social circuit, have experienced similar pressures, have read similar data, talk to the same journalists. They belong to a brotherhood, and at the hearings you could tell. (An uneasy brotherhood, though: It was hard not to find yourself wondering, as you watched the testimony, if a lot of these people didn’t have something on each other.)”

Thus the commission members vied with one another to be obsequious and flattering to the “witnesses,” even as they occasionally practiced the fine art of slipping a verbal stiletto into the ribs in such a way that you would hardly notice unless you were exquisitely sensitive – as most of these people are, of course. All concerned got to burnish their images. And while an occasional little nugget of truth would work its way to the surface, the overall effect was to bury any notion of genuine responsibility or (horrors!) actual accountability under a comforting verbal haze.


Even the appearance of Richard Clarke, former head of the White House Counterterrorism Security Group, who has made himself anathema to the Bush administration after serving it for several years, came off with few fireworks. He showed himself to be what he is: a veteran bureaucrat who suffered the frustration that almost always comes to those who are reasonably intelligent and conscientious but spend their lives living with the compromises they have made. I haven’t read his book yet, but I will. There is probably a great deal of value in it, but it won’t be the whole picture.

Listening to Mr. Clarke, it was almost amusing to consider the lengths to which the White House of some of their eager lackeys in the media have gone to to try to discredit him in advance. Of course, it is of interest, as Drudge pointed out early on, that the same company – Viacom, owns CBS, which produces “Sixty Minutes,” and the publisher of Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies. But the full-court press was more than a little overdone (I suspect the appearance itself defused much of it) It is nice to note that Clarke’s book as of Thursday afternoon was at Number 1 on Amazon.

Then there was the famous August 2002 background briefing that Fox News helpfully made public, at which Mr. Clarke suggested strongly that the Bush administration was more aggressive and effective at fighting terrorism than the Clinton folk had been. I have little trouble with the validity (if not necessarily he propriety) of Clarke’s explanation – that he was an employee of the administration at the time, and his job was to spin whatever facts he had to make the administration look as good as possible without slipping too egregiously into outright falsehood. To continue to insist that this briefing is terribly inconsistent with everything else he had to say, except in tone and emphasis (which it surely is) is either to acknowledge that you haven’t checked the material carefully, or that you are a willing and eager mouthpiece for the “my president right or wrong and we’ll never even admit he could have been wrong” crowd.


It was not hard to read between the lines, however, to see a few nuggets of truth trying to wriggle free of the ooze. It would be folly, however, to expect the commission to deliver or even acknowledge the message to be found there.

Think about the tortuous bureaucratic labyrinths one had to navigate just to get a new policy considered. And as anybody who has spent time in Washington knows, getting a policy formally declared is hardly the same as having it actually implemented. But it would be unrealistic to expect the commission even to consider the possibility that presses itself upon one as you ponder the implications between the lines. Intelligence is so poor in part because there are too many duplicative agencies and task forces.

The commission, of course, as we have seen so often in the past, will deplore the fact that not enough money was spent on this labyrinth of incompetents, and will demand that even more of our money be plowed into the system after some cosmetic changes. Instead of a call for cutting, merging, realigning or even (horrors!) eliminating some of the duplicative agencies guarding their bureaucratic turf and getting in the way of efficient collection and dissemination of information, we might even hear a call for creating new agencies and bureaucracies.


It hardly qualifies as a news flash that the government at the national level is rife with duplication and waste. Although many of those in frontline positions are capable and conscientious, it is almost impossible to get decisions or do anything effective. Most people – and this is true at the highest levels – are more interested in protecting their little piece of bureaucratic turf or covering their behinds than in actually protecting the American people or moving against those who have declared themselves to be our enemies.

However, you will wait a long time for this simple and rather obvious inference to be acknowledged by anybody in government – where careerism is almost universally more important than actually doing anything – or in the mainstream media. Why so many in our culture prefer convenient obfuscations that serve the interest of the state apparatus is sometimes mysterious, even to long-time students of the ways of the Imperial City. But there’s little question the phenomenon is real.

Whether Mr. Clarke is a sincere foe of terrorism frustrated by bureaucratic ineptitude or a canny, self-promoting opportunist –I wouldn’t rule out a bit of both and more complexities yet in his character – to listen to him describe the decision-making process required to change policy slightly regarding the threat al Qaida posed is to understand why government so seldom works well. Whatever party controls the White House, timeservers and climbers predominate.

The other thing that comes through clearly is that the government has no realistic notion at all of how to deal with the current jihadist threat of which al Qaida is only a part. Al Qaida is a stateless terrorist organization that is largely decentralized with numerous semi-autonomous branches in 60 countries – and insofar as it resembles a multinational corporation more than a nation-state, it resembles a franchise operation more than the kind of company that has to check with headquarters just to order paper clips..

It should be obvious that you can’t deal with such a phenomenon strictly by sending expeditionary military forces wherever rumors of an active cell surface. But our government is like a man with a hammer, who sees everything as a nail. A sophisticated approach to the threat of al Qaida would have to operate on many levels. I guess it will be up to those of us who have criticized the military approach to come up with suggestions for ways to deal with al Qaida and the larger jihadist challenge, so I’ll devote a few columns in the future to the subject.

The commission’s hearings were worth monitoring because once in a while a bit of truth slipped through the obfuscatory verbal fog – and as a study in the sociology of the ruling class. But to expect much truth or substantive improvement in the ability of the government to deal with the very real threat posed by modern terrorism is probably expecting too much.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).