Could it be that the long running debate on torture — a vital and necessary debate to be sure — diverts attention from the real issue when it comes to America’s safety: Are our intelligence agencies an effective shield or a bureaucratic quagmire? Recall that following the second and cataclysmic World Trade Center attack, Congress launched the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission to investigate how the horrific event happened, and how to prevent future occurrences. Nowhere in the 9/11 Commission Report (2004) is there the recommendation that the United States needs “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding, or for that matter extraordinary renditions, offshore secret prisons, or domestic wiretaps. Instead, the Report did recommend that the United States: “…stand as an example of moral leadership in the world.”Enough about torture. The 9/11 Commission dealt at length on how America’s intelligence agencies failed to function effectively leading up to the hijacking of four aircraft. Numerous leads were missed or failed to move up the chain-of-command for action. The problem was not intelligence (with or without torture), but how to effectively cut through red tape and interagency Babel to act upon the information we were already receiving. Indeed, when 9/11 happened there were no fewer than 16 different federal agencies — quasi independent bureaucracies — charged with some form of intelligence gathering foreign and/or domestic. The Commission’s primary recommendation? Rather than boldly consolidating the fragmented intelligence community and taking down bureaucratic silos, the Commission recommended the formation of yet another federal bureaucracy, the Director of National Intelligence. Congress complied, growing rather than shrinking the confused maze that comprises the national intelligence infrastructure.While last week’s torture debate was front and center, a simply absurd event happened in New York City. On a bright, sunny morning, the folks of lower Manhattan looked out their windows to see a jumbo jet with two chase F-14 fighters cruising at rooftop level? The emergency phone lines were swamped by frantic callers. According to press reports, some workers and residents fled in panic from their high rise buildings, certain that a repeat of the 9/11 disaster was imminent. What else would they think?Turns out the jumbo jet was part of the Air Force One fleet, and the low level flyover was a photo op arranged to get shots of one of the President’s planes over the Statue of Liberty. By some accounts the Defense Department had given advance notice to some local authorities, but everyone was told to keep the flyover secret for whatever reason. New York Mayor Bloomberg did not know in advance and was furious. President Obama did not know in advance and was furious.We should all be mad not only about the actual event (which reportedly burned over $30,000 in jet fuel and in total cost taxpayers well over $300,000), but about the ominous warning it may send to every citizen in the post-9/11 era. Among 17 federal agencies handling intelligence not one had the common sense to stop the unannounced flyover. This is not good news. The unavoidable suggestion of ongoing dysfunction in our national intelligence community may some day prove to be a far bigger story than the debate on torture.
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