Bureaucracy, proliferation, and the war against terrorism | Power & Policy

Bureaucracy, proliferation, and the war against terrorism

Sharon K. Weiner

Sharon K. Weiner

By Sharon K. Weiner

Sharon K. Weiner is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University and the author of Our Own Worst Enemy? Institutional Interests and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Expertise (MIT Press, 2011), in the Belfer Center Studies in International Security series

The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is an opportunity to take stock, not just of how the United States has fared in the war against Al Qaeda and the continuing risk of terrorist attack, but also of how well we have managed our side in this battle.  The past ten years have led to new priorities for national security, a major reorganization of branches of the U.S. government, and enormous allocations of money and people.  Experience suggests that, despite all this, we have not done the best job we could, in part because at times we are our own worst enemy.

A good way to get perspective on how we have managed the war against terrorism is to look at the last time we faced a radically new security situation.  That was twenty years ago when the Cold War ended and the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the door to the possible proliferation of its nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons materials, and expertise. The great fear was that newly impoverished Russian nuclear scientists or technicians would sell weapons material or their skills to the highest bidder – China, Iran, and North Korea were already knocking on the door. This became the number one U.S. security fear – which, after 9/11, morphed into the fear of nuclear armed terrorists.

The U.S. spent billions of dollars to set up programs in the departments of Defense, Energy, and State to help eliminate some of Russia’s weapons of mass destruction and to secure weapons materials, find civilian jobs for weapons expertise, and put dangerous materials under secure lock and key.  Looking back over the twenty years of this effort, it is clear there has been considerable success.  But, there is also widespread agreement that we could have done more, sooner, more efficiently, and at a much lower political price with Russia.  Learning lessons from this experience might help us better manage the war against terrorism.

In fighting proliferation from the former Soviet Union, a key part of the problem was the endemic failure of U.S. government agencies to share information and coordinate their programs.  For example, the three departments that were responsible for working with Russia to move nuclear weapons workers to civilian jobs rarely shared information about the scientists and projects they were funding.  As a result, some projects were funded by three different U.S. agencies.  Some projects were funded by the same agency twice.

Another problem was bureaucratic turf battles as government departments and agencies responsible for these programs deliberately undercut each other, even though they were all supposed to be pursuing the same mission.  One department in charge of granting permission for government employees to travel to Russia would revoke approval at the last minute; within departments, one program would try to poach money from another; career employees within an agency resented newly hired nonproliferation experts.

A third problem was lack of oversight.  Successive Administrations and Congress focused on narrow measures of results without monitoring how programs were actually implemented.   Government agencies skewed the mission until it fit in with their standard way of doing business, generating metrics of success which did not necessarily represent meaningful progress.  For example, programs counted as success the number of projects funded and money spent, regardless of whether it led to actual civilian jobs for former weapons workers.

Some of these problems have surfaced already in the war against terrorism.  According to the 9/11 Commission, one of the key reasons Al Qaeda was successful in its attacks is that the FBI, CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies failed to share information or cooperate in piecing together a coherent story about terrorist activities aimed at the United States.  FBI agent Ali Soufan’s  The Black Banners:  The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al Qaeda, suggests such problems have persisted and continue to plague interrogation and intelligence collection activities (a conclusion that is reinforced by the CIA’s efforts to force the removal of parts of the book that seem critical of its methods).

There is enormous duplication of effort and problems of coordination, as documented in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William Arkin.  They argue that 9/11 spawned so many agencies and programs, and such a reverence for secrecy, that no one knows the extent of activities or duplication.  Slightly more positive in this regard is Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, which suggests that coordination is improving but this seems more due to personal relationships than to the development of formal lines of communication between agencies.

Focusing on program management, implementation, and oversight is seldom politically rewarding.  But the history of nonproliferation programs and now of the war on terrorism suggest that the consequences of ignoring these issues are grave.

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