19 April 2004

Double-Edged, Super Blue

(Two meaningless points to the person who can name the novel and movie, and cite the context, from which I drew that line.) In an astounding display of partisan and historical ignorance masked by lip service to the past, Stuart Taylor has again gotten things wrong concerning the "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement (N.B. This link will expire after today, thus the following quotations.) On the one hand, he says

The wall was one of many pre-PATRIOT Act surveillance rules adopted during the post-Nixon, post-J. Edgar Hoover era, back when many of us feared government spying more than we did terrorist massacres. These rules were not responsible for all, or even most, of the government failures that left us exposed to 9/11. But they do help explain some of those failures.

(emphasis in original) He then concludes that

Such are the alarums of those who have not learned from the past. Let's hope they are not condemned to repeat it.

I am not exactly ancient, but I do remember the era of J. Edgar "Pink Tutu" Hoover. And Watergate. I've studied the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the My Lai incident, and the Pentagon Papers matter in detail, including reference to source documents (not just after-the-fact secondary sources) for the first two. Mr. Taylor's article reflects itself failure to learn from the past—and from the present. As I've both implied and remarked before, the problem is not with "the wall," but with the nature of the agencies in question. The FBI is a post hoc agency—its people, information sources, main mission, and organizational culture are built around solving a crime after the fact. To say that this is ill-suited for preventing potential, but far from certain, crimes in the future without turning political opponents like MLK Jr. into "enemies of the state" (that is, commies) is understating the obvious. There is a similar problem with the NSA, CIA, and other intelligence agencies: their people, information sources, missions, and organizational cultures focus on obtaining information outside the US for use in future decisionmaking.

Just about anyone should be able to spot the problem—one that, in a structural sense, the UK solved a long time ago, if not perfectly (just ask the Birmingham Seven): counterterrorism requires both domestic and foreign gathing of information for immediate use and immediate use in preventing atrocities. Bluntly, giving counterterrorism (and, in a broader sense, counterintelligence) to the FBI, CAI, NSA, et al. is like asking an orthopedic surgeon to deal with a suspected brain hemorrhage. However competent an orthopedic surgeon he is, and however much he remembers from medical school, his experience in real operations just doesn't translate. This is particularly true when the surgeon is asked not just to operate on a known condition, but to diagnose the condition in the first place.

Mr. Taylor's critical error was in himself not learning from the past. The history of law enforcement everywhere, including this country, is littered with misuse of law enforcement powers—sometimes purposefully, sometimes with all the "good faith" one could expect—for the purpose of suppressing dissent and opposition. The history of the labor movement in this country alone should be fairly conclusive. It's not all just something from the past, either; the impulse to suppress labor movements should have been obvious at that time to anyone who had even read the Alien and Sedition Act. Succumbing to tyranny only proves that those who accuse the US of being an imperialstic monolith are right (or at least increases their justification). The problem is not with the walls themselves; it is that there is nothing on the other side of them.