"What I'm proposing tonight is the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s," President Bush told the nation on June 6. Does what happened in the 1940s shed any light on what's happening now?
On March 12, 1947, President Truman went before Congress to ask for $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey, which were in danger of falling under Soviet domination. Truman said, "I am fully aware of the broad implications involved if the United States extends assistance to Greece and Turkey."
One of the implications was that the United States would assume the burden of leading the Free World in a global confrontation with Communism. That represented a decisive break with the historic pattern of American isolationism. It meant a policy of endless, shadowy confrontation, with no prospect of victory in the foreseeable future. In other words, it meant a Cold War.
But the U.S. military establishment was not organized to wage a Cold War. The Army and Navy were separate, often competitive, forces. Intelligence-gathering was widely dispersed. Day-to-day coordination of national security policy was carried out informally by White House aides. One of them, Clark Clifford, was dismayed by the bureaucratic mess. Lines of responsibility had to be established. Someone had to connect the dots.
The result was the National Security Act of 1947, a monumental piece of legislation that created the major institutions that guided the United States through the Cold War: a Defense Department in which the military services would work as a team under civilian control, a Central Intelligence Agency to gather and analyze information about external threats, and a National Security Council to advise the president.
Forty-four years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. The United States had won the Cold War.
Like the Cold War, the war on terror is a long-term commitment and a fundamental departure from past policy. Intelligence-gathering will be crucial. Just as in 1947, lines of responsibility have to be established. Someone has to connect the dots. Government has to be reorganized to fight another endless, shadowy confrontation with no prospect of victory in the foreseeable future.
In one respect, Bush's reorganization vision goes beyond the Cold War. And that's where it gets controversial. In his June 1 commencement address at West Point, the president explicitly rejected the Cold War policies of deterrence and containment as too passive. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge," he declared.
Before they emerge? Yes; the alternative is too dangerous. If Iraq is acquiring weapons of mass destruction and has expressed the intention of using them, does the United States just stand by and wait for Saddam Hussein to commit an atrocity? Does the United States go after terrorists before they strike? Bush ordered the future Army leaders at West Point "to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary"—just as the FBI is now charged with going after "threats," before crimes are committed.
In his June 6 television speech, Bush acknowledged intelligence failures: "We are now learning that before September 11, the suspicions and insights of some of our front-line agents did not get enough attention." In a Gallup poll for USA Today and CNN taken last weekend, the public was divided over whether the government should have been able to predict the September 11 attacks: 50 percent said no one could have predicted them, while 45 percent said the government should have been able to, given the information it had.
The core of the criticisms being raised about the president's reorganization plan is that it would leave key intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, virtually unaffected. It would simply add another layer of bureaucracy-the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Division of the Department of Homeland Security-on top of them.
As Randall A. Yim, director of national preparedness studies at the General Accounting Office, told The New York Times, "We need some intelligence scheme that can sort out the few relevant bits of information from the background noise, that can show deviations from what's normal. The proposed reorganization does not necessarily solve that problem."
The president's plan does add a new set of eyes to review intelligence reports and, presumably, to connect the dots. But the dots are mostly in the raw intelligence data. Under Bush's plan, that data would not necessarily be reviewed by the new department. "I am concerned that [the president's plan] does not do enough to address the structure of our intelligence community," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information. "Put bluntly: Without good intelligence, our homeland defense will likely fail."
Most Americans told the Gallup pollsters that they do not hold Bush responsible for the intelligence failures. His job rating is virtually unchanged. But most Americans do hold the FBI and the CIA responsible for those failures. Will adding a new layer of government at the top make a great deal of difference? Not if the problem is at the bottom.