Congress Must Re-Examine Its Role on Security Matters

Posted January 12, 2010 at 2:55pm

First, a comment on the retirement announcements of Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). These are real losses to Congress, the Senate specifically, and all Congress lovers. Both are great legislators, people who care about the process, care about people in the country in need, care about the craft of legislation. Both are just really nice guys. I won’t analyze the reasons for retirement, I am just sad to lose two terrific Senators.

[IMGCAP(1)]I am particularly sad to see Chris Dodd go. I have been friends with him for a long time. On Long Island, after the second presidential debate in the fall of 2008, I went to the bar in the hotel with my son looking for some late dinner and saw Dodd at a table with a few of his aides. He motioned us over, and we sat for hours talking politics, history, the Senate. It was pure joy; nobody has more insight, a better way with words and stories, more zeal for politics and the process, and more candor, than Chris.

Some of the conversation centered on a book he had just edited of his father’s letters to his wife from Nuremberg; those who remember Tom Dodd (D-Conn.) only for the way he left the Senate ignore not just his accomplishments there but his remarkable service before he entered politics, including time as an FBI agent hunting John Dillinger and especially his pivotal role as a prosecutor at those historic war crimes trials. I mentioned that I would definitely pick up the book. A few days later, a copy arrived in the mail from Chris. It is a wonderful book, an insight into history and into the man — and into his son.

This week, as Congress returns (sort of), there are way too many topics to write about. The most compelling to me, though, flows from the abortive Christmas terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. With an agenda already overflowing with health care reform, financial regulation, job creation, climate change, the debt limit and long-term fiscal stability, among other things, Congress will have to focus on the cracks in the system raised by this event.

Our usual vulnerability is that we respond to a crisis by solving the last problem and not adequately anticipating the next. Many of us were concerned that we were too focused on attacks on airplanes and not on the next thing al-Qaida might try. Who would have imagined that eight-plus years after 9/11, seven years after Richard Reid the shoe bomber, we would have barely escaped another attack of just this sort?

It is clear that the Obama administration and the intelligence community are stepping back to rethink their basic premises and modes of operation. Congress needs to prod them, along with doing its own analysis of what went wrong and why. But some of that analysis has to focus clearly and directly on Congress’ role and responsibility, including its own failure to implement core recommendations of the 9/11 commission about its own operations.

Much of the responsibility goes back to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Congress failed in its responsibility to think through and scrub the White House plan to make a big splash by creating a behemoth of a department, bringing together way too many disparate agencies into an ungovernable mishmash of a department, with a massive reorganization that in the best case, would take years to work out. Even worse, neither chamber of Congress was willing to transcend petty turf wars and create a meaningful committee on homeland security with the jurisdictional clout and breadth to do real oversight. The revolving door that plagued the department’s management in its critical formative years was completely ignored by Congress, as were the dysfunctionalities that helped lead to the Hurricane Katrina management disaster. Those problems remain. So do the ludicrous habits of treating homeland security funding as just another pie for pork-barrel distribution across the country, instead of setting tough priorities by real vulnerability.

More broadly, the serious problems in national security information technology infrastructure — remember the FBI’s multibillion-dollar debacle trying to update its computer systems — also got little more than benign neglect from Congress rather than the assistance and kick in the pants necessary to bring the most critical government function into proximity with the 21st century. We know that the problems we have now are as much because we have too much information as too little, and inadequate ability to discriminate among pieces of information flooding in, or to develop appropriate algorithms to find patterns and flag them at the appropriate time.

We cannot seem to manage 550,000 names on a watch list — while Google manages trillions of bits of information instantaneously, and finds connections. We cannot get the key warnings to security personnel at airports — but FedEx has thousands of employees who can look at a portable tablet computer and instantly track the whereabouts of tens of thousands of packages.

Of course, some of the problem is human — failures on the ground to pass on information or raise the level or alarm — but much of it is systemic. I know the problems of sensitive national security information, and the difficulties of finding patterns from drone video, phone taps, informant assertions, spy reports and other sources, make such analogies simplistic. I know that it is tough for government to attract the top-flight IT talent when far more lucrative options exist. But why not enlist Google and FedEx, among others, to help create the right infrastructure and algorithms? Even as the administration does its review, Congress needs to step back and examine its own role — and find ways to change the mindset and behavior that leave us less safe than we should be.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.