by Austin Bay
June 12, 2002
Mating dinosaurs and merging government agencies have much in common. Given the bulk and mass engaged, in both cases the turf shakes.
The ritual noise generated can't be ignored. Success is a relative thing, literally and figuratively. Dinosaurs beget dinosaurs. Merged government agencies beget another government agency. Dinosaurs were the whiz-kids of the Cretaceous, which ended 65 million years ago. Government agencies tend to turn whiz-kids into bureaucrats, ending audacity and creativity.
I know I'm being a bit unfair. The new Department of Homeland Security won't simply be another government agency. The threat presented by theo-babbling fanatics is too immediate. After the political turf battles cease and congressional noise diminishes, the Department of Homeland Security as proposed by the Bush administration should improve America's ability to thwart terrorist attacks. Reorganizing and more cogently connecting emergency response assets should also improve our ability to react when a terror attack occurs.
Domestic security operations already link the Border Patrol, Customs and the Coast Guard. While the cooperation is often ad hoc, dedicated people with common sense know how to collaborate. Bringing U.S. border security agencies under the wing of a single department is an attempt to make common sense a federal policy.
However, when it comes to agile action, enormous bureaucracies have a sorry track record. Many paleontologists argue that brontosaurs and other huge dinos really didn't lumber and weren't stupid. Be that as it may, small, quick mammals inherited the earth.
Brains do trump brawn. That's why the key element to any kind of security operation is its brain.
The brain of Homeland Security will be the "intelligence fusion cell" charged with synthesizing data gathered by a range of government and private agencies. "Fusion" will be tasked to produce "an integrated intelligence picture," which means forming a dynamic pattern from all the data, tips and facts. That's hard enough, but genuine "intel fusion" also entails drawing accurate conclusions from that pattern -- to include "seeing" that pattern the way the enemy sees it. Successful fusion also means disseminating useable intelligence so that field officers and units can act in time.
We've tried "fusion" before, albeit in a political climate that lacked this moment's certain urgency. In the mid-1980s, CIA and other government agencies began to share information through the Counter Terror Center. In July 1996, the Clinton administration spokesman Ken Bacon asserted that the counter-terror intel fusion cell formed after the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia was already "pretty much going," and it was only a "question of improving what's already there ..."
Gee. Shucks. Pretty much.
Effective intel fusion -- whether at Homeland Security, the FBI or CIA -- requires leaders with spine, vision and persistence. It also requires leaders who trust their subordinates to think, exchange information and act quickly. Leaders like that are rare in bureaucracies. Ironically, press critics who practice gotcha journalism are the allies of "zero defect" bureaucrats who lock up information and squelch imaginative, aggressive subordinates.
Secure digital technology has given intel analysts the ability to be "highly lateral" when sharing information and concepts. The quick exchange of ideas by imaginative, intuitive and experienced analysts accelerates the development of an integrated intel picture.
Sure, there are risks, the worst being the potential compromise of spies if information leaked, but that's always a risk. Rapid lateral exchange runs counter to the "command and control" culture of traditional federal bureaucracies. If we intend to beat "low observable threats" like terror networks, however, leadership must force those cultures to change.
"Brains" must promptly connect to brawn. A potential weakness in the Bush proposal is the separation of Homeland Security's analytical fusion center from FBI, CIA, and Department of Defense operational perspectives. A truly integrated intelligence picture includes the good guys' capabilities. This means the fusion cell must receive timely and accurate operational updates.
If "intel fusion" can be made to work, Homeland Security won't be a dinosaur bureaucracy, but a new breed of agency -- bred for an intricate, nuanced and brutally contemporary kind of war.
To find out more about Austin Bay, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.