Amy Zegart didn’t see any burning hair in Clintonville

Let’s not imply that a Democratic administration would have or could have done any better. The intelligence bureaucracy is in a pathological state of dysfunction, and has been for decades. To fix the critical problems, we need to face them in a serious and thoughtful way. Neither party has done that well at all.

Amy Zegart writes:

Though I don’t give the Bushies a pass on dealing with 9/11, I am irked by how so many Clinton people contend their collective national security team hair was on fire long before 9/11 and that, by comparison, the Bush Administration failed on the job. As I noted before, many saw the threat, all right, but nobody’s hair was on fire in either Administration (with the possible exception of Richard Clarke and his very large ego). It’s the difference between thinking to yourself, “this is the girl I’d like to marry” and actually popping the question. The two are nowhere near the same.

One way to test the Clinton Administration claim is to look at the 2000 presidential campaign. After all, next to Cheney, Gore has been the most involved Vice President in decades — with a particular interest in and focus on foreign affairs. When I was on the Clinton NSC staff, Gore’s own staff was in the loop. It stands to reason that if terrorism were job #1, (especially with all that Millennium tree shaking going on), then it would naturally figure prominently in the Gore campaign. It didn’t. In fact, Gore’s campaign foreign policy rhetoric consistently emphasized “new vital national security interests” such as HIV/AIDS in Africa, environmental degradation, and humanitarian crises. And where was Osama? Nowhere on the campaign trail, that’s where.

Now I’m sure I’ve raised partisan hackles. What about the “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” PDB of August 6, 2001? The fact that Tenet and Bush were both “on leave” during the month of August, and that the CIA Director spoke directly with the President only twice during that entire month, despite the threat spike and chatter? The 20-month delay in watch listing 2 of the 9/11 hijackers, even though the CIA knew at least one had a multiple entry visa to the US and both were suspected Al Qaeda operatives with links to the architect of the USS Cole bombing? And all of the other eye-wincing missteps that occurred in the Bush Administration? All true. All very disturbing. All fair game.

But let’s not imply that a Democratic administration would have or could have done any better. The intelligence bureaucracy is in a pathological state of dysfunction, and has been for decades. To fix the critical problems, we need to face them in a serious and thoughtful way. Neither party has done that well at all.

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It seems to me that Amy has a good point.

I’m not sure the inference from what Gore’s campaign speechwriters put in front of him to say and what the Clinton Administration national security apparatus was actually doing, or not doing, is a fully valid one. (After all, Gore didn’t do much bragging about how Clinton balanced the budget by raising taxes on the rich, either.)

However, it’s surely fair to say that, if the Clinton folks were upset with the Bushies’ inaction on terrorism pre 9-11, they kept that dissatisfaction a very well-guarded secret. How unlike them.

On the other hand, I’m also not sure that the Clinton-Bush comparison is the relevant one. No one named “Clinton” is on the ballot this year. And if the best story the Bushites can tell for themselves is “We weren’t any more feckless in confronting terrorism than the Clintonites, and we think that was plenty good enough,” then maybe we need an administration that sets itself higher aspirations.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com