It is clear that the failed terrorist attack on the Delta/Northwest airplane preparing to land in Detroit this past Friday at the end of its flight from Amsterdam demands serious analysis. What is less clear is how seriously that analysis will be pursued and how its results will be handled. The proposition that, from a procedural point of view, nothing has changed since the status quo prior to 9/11 has become blood in the water for the mass media sharks, particularly those who see it as the perfect opportunity to bring down President Barack Obama; so there is a real risk that serious analysis of a serious problem will be undermined by ideological motives that have nothing to do with that problem. It is thus worth considering the current state of play as that analysis gets under way.
A good point of departure would be this morning's report for the Financial Times by Anna Fifield. Her opening paragraphs provide as good a summary as we can anticipate:
President Barack Obama will on Thursday receive a preliminary report from intelligence agencies on how a would-be terrorist was able to slip through terrorism databases and board a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day, as his administration tries to avoid repeat attacks.
The preliminary report is aimed at reassuring a jittery public that the skies are safe and at countering criticism that the Obama administration was too slow to address what the president on Tuesday called ”human and systemic failures” in the intelligence sharing system.
John Brennan, the White House homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, is expected to give Mr Obama his initial findings on what went wrong, and the president, who is on holiday in Hawaii, will likely discuss them with his national security team.
Mr Obama is not, however, scheduled to speak publicly on Thursday about the report.
A final report is expected to take weeks but intelligence agencies have already started defending their actions after it emerged that multiple lapses had taken place that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Friday, to board the Northwest Airlines flight last Friday.
Most important is that she provided context for the Obama quote, not only through the hyperlink but also by reproducing the entire sentence in which it was embedded further down in her article:
There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potentially catastrophic breach of security.
The fact that Obama was willing to use a phrase like "potentially catastrophic" is at least a sign that things have changed since the "Denial Presidency" of George W. Bush. Obama took a buck-stops-here stance on the seriousness of the situation; and now we must wait to see if his resolve can hold up against any analysis submitted to him. That resolve will have to penetrate any CYA strategy attempted by any of the parties involved in favor of a more systematic identification of where failures occurred in the narrative thread leading to the thwarted attack attempt itself. Once the failures are identified, they may be classified according to Obama's human/systemic distinction, hopefully laying the groundwork for the most important question:
What do we do now?
However, beyond the problem that serious analysis is likely to be impeded by the bureaucratic practices of the institutions charged with providing it, there is at least one problem that transcends mere bureaucracy. If we think of the problem as a narrative that concludes with the avoidance of catastrophe while that Delta/Northwest airplane was on its descent into Detroit, then, for the sake of failure analysis, where does the narrative begin? Think of the problem that Richard Wagner had: He wanted to write an opera about Siegfried's death, so he worked backwards from that episode. By the time he was done, he had conceived four operas! I could see the whole analytic effort being undermined by endless arguing over where this particular story should begin, and there is no simple answer to the question. However, it illustrates how easy it is for "government work" to get distracted from the goals that matter the most.
There may be a lesson to be learned from the mess that Congress has managed to make of health care reform. Respecting the theory of separation of powers, Obama decided to take a relatively hands-off approach to Congressional activities. This may have been good for theory, but it led to results so disappointing that it is unclear that they can even be called "reform." If Obama is going to withstand the attacks that have already begun over being weak in matters of national security, then he is going to have to be more of a manager in this failure analysis project. He is going to have to demand frequent progress reports, and he is going to have to keep asking hard questions to keep the analysis from being derailed by bureaucratic niggling Like it or not, he is going to have to take responsibility for the quality of the final product, after which he will also have to take responsibility for proposing a course of action based on those results. In the midst of the process, he will also have to keep a cool head while his opponents try to whip up that culture of fear that debilitated the entire country under the Bush Administration. I just hope his vacation has given him some time to recharge his batteries, because he is going to need all of his energy to turn "this potentially catastrophic breach of security" into a more effective Homeland Security policy.