Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thinking the unthinkable: smaller government (1)

In order to win anybody over to the notion that government at all levels from local to national can be made smaller through the political process you've got three primary hurdles to clear:

1. You've got to convince people that larger government impairs their ability to lead whatever kind of life they desire.

2. You've got to convince them that a smaller government could actually handle the critical, essential tasks of governing.

3. You've got to convince them that making the change will be worth the potential loss of government benefits that they might now be enjoying.

I'm going to punt on Number 1 right now, because I'm working on a larger, strategic approach to that. So let's look at Number 2, first from the Federal perspective, and let's not take an easy one: begin with homeland security.

I want you to think about this: in Al Qaeda we face a decentralized enemy that is as flexible in its tactics as it is inflexible in its religious/political beliefs. The great genius of Osama bin Laden was that he single-handedly reversed the patronage roles of terrorist groups and nations. Before Al Qaeda all terror groups existed as the clients of some state or other; bin Laden instead made first Sudan, then Afghanistan, and more recently the warlords of Waziristan into his clients. Throughout the rest of the world he franchised the Al Qaeda brand to local operatives under a general anti-Western theme. The hallmark of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been exceptionally flexible changes in tactics and a corporate model of decentralized leadership with an emphasis on low- and local-tech weaponry.

How did the US respond to this dramatically different challenge? We created a new bureaucracy. Actually several of them.

The Department of Homeland Security originated as an umbrella organization for all the different parts of the Federal government from (honest!) the Department of Agriculture to Treasury, FBI, CIA, DIA, NRO, NSA, FEMA etc etc with any terrorism prevention or mitigation roles. To this was added the incredible double boondoggle of the TSA to make you take your shoes off in airports and the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) who is supposed to referee turf battles between our intelligence agencies.

The problems? Many. FIrst, DHS was staffed with transfers (often involuntary) from other Federal agencies, a process that I can tell you from witnessing it first hand during their training resulted in a cadre of mediocre bureaucrats who know nothing about counter-terrorism and aren't really interested in learning (I am deadly serious about that last comment). So one of DHS's first acts was to contract with Oracle Systems to create the Data Collection Tool (known, obviously, as "the Tool") which is supposed to be a gigantic database of every single terrorist target in the US. States consume thousands of hours and spend literally millions of dollars on preparing entries for this Tool, and the dirty little secret is that it doesn't work. Then DHS bureaucratized the process of administering Homeland Security state, urban, and transportation grants, placing their administration under "State Preparedness Officers" who were woefully unqualified for their jobs. (The first woman to have responsibility for Hawaii and the Pacific Trust territories, who controlled over $35 million in DHS grants, was a 23 year old whose only qualifications were personal amiability and a BA in Political Science from Brown.) This did not necessarily dissatisfy the states, as the Executive Director of HS for South Carolina told me, because, "Homeland Security is the new revenue sharing, son, and every county sheriff can dig up a geriatric klansman in his district to justify gettin' some of it."

On the intelligence sharing front, DHS first moved to quash states that had developed their own regional fusion centers for sharing intel, and despite the consensus of experts in the field, moved to centralize and heavily compartmentalize intelligence analysis. Worse, as intelligence estimates move up the chain from, say the FBI or CIA, toward the Executive Branch, there is a whole new level of spin placed on them by the DNI before it gets there.

In other words, what I'm saying in a nutshell is that responding to a dynamic, innovative security threat was handled by the creation of the country's largest and least responsive bureaucracy in modern history. Not only aren't we really safer, we're paying more for it to more civil servants.

Was there an alternative? You bet there was.

The 9/11 Commission and several studies by acknowledged experts in the field strongly suggested that instead of a DNI the US needed a new information-sharing protocol and a series of formalized interagency contacts rather than a new level of bureaucracy, with the elimination of duplicate services and pooling of foreign language specialists. This, combined with the development rather than the discouraging of law enforcement regional fusion centers, would have allowed greater intel processing flexibility and--according to one of the best minds at the Naval Postgraduate School--would have saved something on the order of $12 billion annually. It would also have reduced or eliminated at least four duplicating offices for a potential savings of another $8-10 billion.

That's intelligence gathering. What about terrorism response and mitigation?

DHS has now essentially mandated the nationwide adoption of a centralized incident management system that was developed through the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston AL. Instead of capitalizing on the "best practices" approach that was emerging between various emergency responders between 2001-2003, DHS sent out extravagant no-bid contracts to several "security" corporations, whose model was not only accepted in toto, but then they staffed CDP with contract employees being paid many times what government employees make. DHS now completely subsidizes the travel, accomodations, and expenses of tens of thousands of first responders to voyage to a remote location in Alabama each year. The only function that can be fulfilled in AL that cannot be handled elsewhere is experience in handling live biological agents. This is valuable training, but the number of people who need it annually is very small.

The alternative, which DHS rejected, was to set up small traveling teams of instructors certified from existing experts in the States, and to send them around regionally on a rotating basis to provide instruction for first responders. How do we know this would work? Because one of the largest DHS contractors [EAI] has now done this, going into direct competition with the DHS operation in Alabama. They can deliver the training cheaper, more effectively, and with more emphasis on regional and state differences in circumstances than the CDP in Anniston. The best estimates of the potential savings had this approach been considered (it was not), apparently would have been again in the ballpark of $17-21 billion per year.

Beginning to get the idea?

As for mitigation, the key word to remember is Katrina. Everyone was quick to blame the failure of FEMA on Bush's nepotism in appointing "Brownie" to head the agency. The reality is murkier; FEMA resisted incorporation under the DHS mantle for as long as it could, because many key officials in the agency did not buy off on the Incident Management System based on their own experiences in disaster relief. And the new system is, in fact, far better suited to dealing with urban terror attacks than natural disasters. FEMA found its training superceded, its doctrines thrown out, and many key trained people suddenly out on the street. Again there was an alternative, and that was to leave FEMA alone. The agency had a solid if not outstanding record of helping to coordinate disaster relief with state agencies, but once DHS got hold of it FEMA became another Federal puppet. Ironically, the diminished performance of FEMA was purchased at a premium: changes required by DHS probably cost the taxpayers another $25 billion annually.

I realize that in Washington $50-60 billion of our money is small change (though if I were to include three or four more examples I could get the number up over $100 billion). The killer is that the expenditure of this money and the creation of DHS has made us not one whit safer than we could have been without it.

We don't even want to talk about the manner in which grant funding to the States has been handled.

Summing up: in order to provide better for domestic security, what was primarily needed at the Federal level was (A) better intelligence-sharing protocols and "bottom up" regional fusion centers; (B) decentralized training for emergency responders in best practices; and (C) leaving an essentially functional disaster management system alone.

The correct answer to improving homeland security WAS NOT the largest expansion of the Federal bureaucracy since World War 2.

I was going to talk about the incredible boondoggle that is the Transportation Security Administration, as well as delve into the derivation of the term "homeland" in "homeland security," but I will satisfy myself with holding that for later, and making one last point.

Our government did not look for the most efficient method to accomplish a critical task because big governments don't really give a damn about efficiency. They can't; that's not what they were made to do.

(I recognize that this post is both long and not as tightly organized as I'd like, but you need the wealth of detail to understand the argument.)

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