Sunday, January 31, 2010
Our National Catastrophe by James Farmer
This book has shown that fundamental disconnects between and among government agencies, between the bureaucracies within the agencies and also between the different agencies and the national leadership had existed throughout the five year struggle against al Qaeda. These disconnects beset every agency of government charged with adapting to the new threat: the FBI; the CIA; the State Department; the Department of Defense; the Department of Transportation. In each case, agencies were able to identify the threat but were thoroughly incapable of changing they way they were configured, in order to respond to it. Emblematic of these failures is the ultimate Whiskey Tango Foxtrot* moment to emerge from the 9./11 Commission's investigation: the image of former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger hiding documents in his socks, so desperate to prevent the public from seeing certain papers that he sneaked out of the National Archives and hid the documents at a nearby construction site so that he could shred them later. The desire to inhibit the discovery of historical truth, it turns out, is truly bipartisan, and- as the revelation that the CIA destroyed the tapes of its interrogation of detainees reveals- is not limited by government agency; it is endemic to the modern way of government.
Taken as a whole, the government's response to the emerging threat of terrorist attack was a stunning collapse of competence; 9/11 was its trailing consequence. The response on 9/11 replicated in compressed time the mis-communications, the garbled signals, the years of bureaucratic frustration that had preceded it. It was the product of a government that doesn't work, and the false story put forward about the event of that morning allowed the government to avoid the kind of searching reexamination that was appropriate to the situation. Thus, years later, Richard Clarke could still believe that his high-level videoconference had been the nerve center of the nation's response; no one had done the thoroughgoing analysis that would have exposed the reality that national leadership was irrelevant during those critical moments. As a consequence, no one had acted to ensure that similar disconnects would not recur in a future.
Instead, the principal response to the failure of bureaucracy was not an attempt to redefine government itself, but the creation of more government, more bureaucracy [ while continuing to blame government and bureaucracy per se]. Thus, in 2002, Congress and the Bush Administration [ blackmailed by their own lies] collaborated in forming a new federal department whose principal aim was to provide "homeland security." A loose conglomeration of disparate agencies, such as Immigration, Transportation Security, Secret Service, FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, all of which had some relation to homeland security, the department would face its first stern test in September 2005, when a long-anticipated threat approached the homeland. This threat came not in a human form but in the form of a natural disaster. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the bureaucratic failures that resulted in 9/11 would be replicated, in every respect, in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
* Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:
One of my staff members on the 9/11 Commission was Kevin Shaeffer, a rising star in the Navy before 9/11 who had, by chance, been standing behind a pillar when American 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Everyone in his vicinity was killed. Kevin suffered severe burns over most of his body, and flatlined twice in the course of his recovery. His injuries forced him to retire from the military at the age of thirty. He brought to our work a dedication and intense desire to know the truth of what had occurred that inspired all of us.
I walked past Kevin's work space one afternoon late in the summer of 2003 and heard him muttering, under his breath, "whiskey tango foxtrot, man. Whiskey tango foxtrot." What's that?" I asked. Kevin and Miles Kara (a Vietnam veteran) laughed and explained: a military euphemism for "What the fuck!",.
I don't recall today the particular discrepancy between the official version of what happened on 9/11 and what we were discovering that prompted Kevin's utterance; there were so many that "Whiskey tango foxtrot" became a regular refrain from the members of me team.