Priorities

Amy Zegart on yesterday’s hearings:
The Commission asked the wrong question. Was terrorism a priority? Of course it was. The real question is how many other priorities both administrations were confronting.

Hmph. Now that I’ve mentioned the opinion of one of my pro-Bush-pro-war-national-security-expert friends, they’re all clamoring to be heard in this extremely high-prestige forum.

My colleague Amy Zegart (What? You haven’t read Flawed by Design yet? Shocking!) who represents the one piece of evidence I have that Condi Rice is competent at something (Rice was Amy’s thesis advisor), offers the following thoughts on yesterday’s 9-11 Commission hearings:

1) I couldn’t help but think there was a certain Tweety-bird quality to the statements from both the Bushies and Clintonites. “Terrorism was, it was a priority!”

2) The Commission asked the wrong question. Was terrorism a priority? Of course it was. The real question is how many other priorities both administrations were confronting. I’ll tell you: too many. Clinton wrote a Presidential Decision Directive in 1995 that sought to establish clear priorities for the intelligence community. There were so many in the top tier, they actually divided them into Tier 1A and Tier 1B. But it gets better (or worse). There was also a Tier 0, apparently for the very very very top priorities. Note to self: when you can’t list priorities with regular numbers, you haven’t really made priorities.

As time passed, priorities were added to the list but old ones were never removed. By 9/11, the National Security Agency had roughly 1,500 formal requirements, and developed 200,000 “Essential Elements of Information.” I’m not making this up. See the Congressional Intelligence Committees’ Joint Inquiry Report, December 2002, p.49. Intelligence officials told Congressional investigators that the prioritization process was “so broad as to be meaningless.”

This is not new. For the past 50 years, there have been more than 40 major studies about the intelligence community. A common theme among them has been the spotty and fleeting attention policy makers have given to setting intelligence priorities. One former senior intelligence official told me that during the Cold War, he was asked about the state of the Soviet economy exactly once, when the Secretary of Defense wanted to convert rubles to dollars for a budget presentation to Congress.

3) Long-term priorities almost always get cast aside when there are fires to be put out. It has nothing to do with politics, morality, or stupidity. It has to do with human nature. I have a to-do list for the week, but I also have daily post-its for things that just cannot wait until the next day. In foreign affairs, answering the phone call from a head of state, reacting to the crisis du jour, preparing for the summit, responding to the latest suicide attack in Israel — these things are the action-forcing events that jump to the top of the pile. The result is that longer-term issues naturally take a back seat, no matter how much leaders feel they deserve urgent attention.

I have no doubt that terrorism was a priority. The problem is, when everything is a priority, nothing is.

Well, that seems right, doesn’t it? However, as Amy’s friend and colleague, I’m a little bit worried: Thinking and writing this clearly and common-sensically is probably not a good career move for a political scientist. She’s almost certainly brilliant enough to get away with it, but why take risks?

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

One thought on “Priorities”

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