The Uncertain Trumpet and Systemic Failure

_In the mid-1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Notre Dame’s Rocky Bleier. Unfortunately, Steeler management failed to protect the prized rookie with the paperwork necessary to take advantage of a myriad of available conscription-law loopholes, and Bleier ended up in Vietnam where a grenade blast tore apart his legs, almost ending his football career. After Bleier recovered to become a star running back, he revealed bitterness about only one aspect of his war experience. No one—not his training sergeants stateside, not his platoon leader, nor his company commander in Vietnam, no one—ever told him why he was there or what he was supposed to accomplish, other than to survive. Why?

Because nobody knew the mission. Vietnam became the classic case of "systemic failure." Then, as always, the fish rotted from the head down.

In 1970 and 1971, I served in Thailand as an Air Force intelligence officer. By then the war was lost. The objective seemed to be for top Air Force leaders, the generals I briefed and their staff officers, to get through the war with their careers intact. Meanwhile, an emboldened enemy attacked America’s retreating, increasingly demoralized forces. Today, a reinvigorated al Qaeda has seized the initiative in Iraq and Afghanistan, widened the war throughout Pakistan and Yemen, and struck twice in the last two months within the United States. American casualties are climbing.

Systemic failure is a bureaucratic phenomenon. Poor leadership generates a virulent uncertainty that infects and disables bureaucracies. The 16 agencies comprising the American intelligence communities each contain a plethora of sub-bureaucratic fiefdoms, many competing with one another for funding. That didn’t change during the Bush administration, not even after 9/11. But at least then, although the Bush administration made numerous strategic missteps, the intelligence community believed the president "had their back."

President Barack Obama’s worldview is inimical to the primary intelligence ethos: think of the worst possible challenge the enemy might pose and prepare to counter it. Intelligence professionals see the enemy with frightening clarity. It’s their job to do so. Obama, on the other hand, pretends the world wants to love us—and to enable this love, all we have to do is show how "good-hearted" we are, and maybe then, our enemies will shower us with kindness rather than attack us with the most deadly of intentions. Administration attitudes and policies have inspired a timidity that can wreak havoc throughout the intelligence community. Here are a few examples:

First, threats to investigate the intelligence community for alleged misdeeds associated with water boarding and other interrogation techniques—mostly fantasies in the minds of the far left—instilled uncertainty throughout the community. Bureaucrats are by nature cautious when it comes to turf and retaining their potential for promotion. An overly cautious intelligence community is also an insipid one.

Second, sending terrorists back to the battlefield, rather than detaining them for the duration of the war, is stupid squared. The Bush administration started this inane policy out of a desire to appease the left. The Obama administration supports and seems determined to continue this policy because it fits its worldview. This demoralizes not only the intelligence community; it also inspires the intelligence community to doubt the wisdom and commitment of the administration. The U.S. Constitution does not offer the same protections to foreigners that it does to U.S. citizens. Furthermore, Geneva Convention protections that govern enemy combatants do not apply to terrorists. Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest said it best, "War means fighting and fighting means killing."

Third, bureaucracies fearing possible budget cuts become overly cautious. Managers, by nature, are not warriors. Instead of taking risks, they enforce caution to avoid attracting unwelcome attention. The systemic reality is that bureaucrats focus on sustaining their bureaucracies, and thus protecting their own careers.

Fourth, the fact that political appointees head the CIA, Justice Department, and Homeland Security, and that the National Director of Intelligence is also a political appointee, is dangerous. There needs to be a system for picking professionals from within the community for top leadership positions. Sometimes the appointees are competent, Tom Ridge being an example. They will, however, reflect the mindset of the administration in power. And when the administration is conflicted and uncertain, then the fish rots from the head down.

Getting back to football. On Thursday, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas Longhorns played for the national championship. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas head coach, Mack Brown, knew only one team would claim college football’s top spot, and nobody but the loser would remember who came in second. Their staffs studied their respective opponents and worked out game plans to minimize their vulnerabilities and maximize their strengths. Every assistant coach and every player knew the mission. The best-prepared team, the one most determined to win, would prevail. The Obama administrations could learn a lot in Tuscaloosa and Austin.

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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