Leadership 101

Our national officials acted like low-ranking newbies in their paroxysm of “explaining” the Knickerbomber last week. Stop explaining and fix it.

The statements made by the White House this week, about the systemic failure that let young Abdulmutallab get on a passenger jet to the US on Christmas Day, have been chillingly incompetent.  The principal impression has been one of bizarre inexperience, haplessness, and lack of judgment.  Although I had some sympathy with Juan Williams’ complaint on Fox News Sunday this morning – that right-wing pundits do nothing but look for ways to blame Obama for everything – the fact is that the Obama administration has performed very poorly in relation to the Knickerbomber.

I made the case at “contentions” on Friday that the administration’s invocation of an analytical surprise – that Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has moved from “aspirational” to “operational” – was disquieting.  There is not enough room in a short post to develop this concern fully, so I focused on the issue of whether that analytical conclusion should be required before we can keep people with known terrorist associations off of airplanes.

The implication of John Brennan and Janet Napolitano was that such a requirement exists. Within our system for developing the no-fly list, which is extracted from the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center (and based on the TIDE database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC), it is apparently the case that a tie-breaking criterion, for thinking someone who’s suspicious is really, really suspicious, is whether his terrorist associates have been pronounced “operational” by analysts.  Whether this is the case some or all of the time, the clear statement of Obama’s officials was that it was the case for Abdulmutallab and AQAP.  The White House review made the same main point.

Now, I have long experience with processes of exactly this kind:  comparing intelligence to warning criteria, including criteria for preemptive action.  So I’m not talking out of my hat here, but from an excellent understanding of how this works.  I doubt that it was the case, for example, that the information we had about Abdulmutallab was actively dismissed at all, much less that it was dismissed explicitly because of the analytical assessment that AQAP was still “aspirational.”  It doesn’t work that way.  Indeed, we are informed that the FBI intended to detain Abdulmutallab for questioning when his flight arrived in Detroit.  He was of enough interest to authorities to prompt that level of pursuit.

The real problem is what everyone on earth except, apparently, US federal officials, can immediately see.  Hel-LO.

1.  Man with terrorist associations whom the FBI wants to question.

2.  Man with terrorist associations whom the FBI wants to question on a passenger jet flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Knock-knock?  Anybody home?  Hello, McFly?  The system’s decisions here seem surreally analogous to, say, letting a suspicious-looking man come into your home so you can question him about his intentions.

No, the problem lies not in our misunderstanding of the warning intelligence, but in our criteria for action.  It lies in our fundamental posture, of which appealing to the analytical categories “aspirational” and “operational” is only a symptom.  In the matter of judging terror groups to be operational versus aspirational, an airplane bombing is one of the most likely indicators of the former.  Shall we really wait for terrorists to prove themselves operational in this manner before taking preemptive action – like, say, putting suspicious men on the no-fly list?

This is quite obviously a truly idiotic posture, one that begs the question what we even want to have intelligence for – yet according to Brennan and Napolitano, it’s the one we have adopted.  The proximate decisions of our officials, whether in intelligence or law enforcement, were constrained not so much by the aspirational-operational divide as by the very posture of a system that makes the divide significant.

And yet.  Brennan and Napolitano presented this analytical nicety as a reason for our failure to keep Abdulmutallab off of the plane from Amsterdam.  I had the most discouraging sense of déjà vu, watching them speak on air on Thursday, because like most people who have achieved a level of executive responsibility in their careers, I have heard things like this before:  from subordinates.  Indeed, in my long-ago past as a junior officer, I probably advanced such explanations myself at one time or another, because there’s a time in our lives when most of us do still think systemic explanations are definitive.  Whatever less-accountable foolishness I may have perpetrated in that regard, I did learn over time the lesson all executive leaders learn, which is that if there was no breakdown of the system but something still went wrong, there’s a problem with the system’s core assumptions.

Moving to that stage is rapid and automatic, under effective leadership.  The judgment that the system’s existing assumptions produced the wrong result is an interim step, and you don’t get points for checking that block.  You just get dinged if you don’t.  By the time I was no more than a Navy lieutenant – a captain in the other services – I knew better than to offer an explanation like the one Brennan and Napolitano put so much emphasis on, as if it were the main thing to know about a situation.  It can’t help coming off as inviting sympathy (or averting blame), to dwell on features of the system as a mechanism the human actors were caught in.  The Leadership 101 prescription is to change basic systemic assumptions that are inhibiting human judgment, or sending it in the wrong direction.  That’s what you talk about.  You acknowledge that the problem was those core assumptions; but having figured that out is old news by the time you say it.  Talk about what you’re responsible for doing.

Brennan and Napolitano looked on Thursday like low-ranking subordinates who didn’t realize that they have the power and the responsibility to change the system’s assumptions, so that we get a better result.  I remember the number of occasions when abashed subordinates explained in great detail how a problem had occurred, and then earnestly promised to be more diligent, proactive, supervisory, etc to keep it from happening again – when it was obvious to me, and very likely to the chief or the department head, that there was a systemic shortfall to be addressed.  Young sailors didn’t always see that, although they usually understood immediately if someone with a broader view of the situation explained it.  They were typically just more intent on conveying their bona fides than on analysis of systemic problems.

It is nothing short of alarming to see our highest national officials offering earnest explanations to the people, with no apparent appreciation of the responsible view – the executive view – that is evident to virtually everyone else:  that we can’t keep potential terrorists off airplanes if we don’t, well, keep potential terrorists off airplanes.  With young Nigerian males who have strong associations to any group whose name starts “Al Qaeda,” and whose fathers have warned US authorities that they are radicalized and intend to attack Americans, the a priori presumption should be against letting them on commercial airliners.

We, the American people, should never have to hear the words “aspirational” and “operational” again.  Quite obviously, the associates of the groups we deem to be aspirational can make bombing attempts just like the associates of operational ones.  Making this distinction a core assumption of our system is producing the wrong result.  Stop explaining it, and just fix it.

8 thoughts on “Leadership 101”

  1. I have been fascinated by the apparent refusal of those on the Left to read or consider ideas from the Right. If I were Governor of Arizona and appointed Secretary of Homeland Security, the first thing I would do is read my way through all the best books on Islam, Islamic terrorism, terrorist activity in this country, and the countries involved.

    There is a rejection on the Left of anything from the Right. The War in Iraq was a lie because Bush lied about WMD. The War in Afghanistan was good because we had to retaliate against Osama. Guantanamo was evil because that’s where we tortured people. Anything said on Fox News is a lie. We have Helen Thomas plaintively asking in a press conference why al Qaeda doesn’t like us. John Brennan can’t seem to explain a similar question. So we cannot find Abdulmutallab because someone misspelled his name, yet “al Qaeda” is spelled differently by almost everyone who writes it down. Sigh!

    Bureaucracy kills initiative. No one in a bureaucracy is supposed to take initiative unless they are appointed to an initiative-taking position.
    Original thought is not welcome. By the time one gets to an initiative-taking (responsible) position, there are many who have lost the habit more or less permanently.

    1. “We have Helen Thomas plaintively asking in a press conference why al Qaeda doesn’t like us.”

      I’m amazed that I haven’t seen the intuitively obvious response to Helen Thomas as yet on the web.

      Namely: They don’t like you, in particular, Helen because you shamelessly flaunt yourself in public out of a burqa and without a male relative in attendance, asking questions of males as though an equal. They don’t like those of us who are male in part because we permit you to so flaunt yourself.

  2. Actually I don’t think that a person could advance in the bureaucracies of the Democratic Party elites unless the person was a true believer. Responding to data is a scientific old style liberal thought process. The gang running the Democratic Party and their bureaucratic minions are all true believers. There are no facts, there is only belief. If you have built your entire life on the concept that you are a superior entity (you are a graduate of all the right schools) your ideas must be the only correct response every time. The Chinese students openly laughed at one of our US economic officials. The Chinese blew out the ideology bit and became big time pragmatists. Unfortunately their society has no respect for individual life but they’ve got the pragmatist bit down solid. I really don’t like the Democratic Party elites because they are going to get themselves and the rest of us non-true believers killed.

  3. Denial always refuses the truth it cannot face.

    When denial is no longer tenable, appeasement with the support of rationalization is offered.

    If appeasement fails, the necessity of surrender is counseled.

    The horse (or donkey) only knows how to run away and failing that, to surrender to domestication.

    Obama is, figuratively, a donkey, just as a leopard doesn’t change its spots, donkeys don’t grow fangs.

  4. The light skinned Negro, lacking ebonics, never even learned to ride a surf board while growing up in Hawaii. Instead, we have a community organizer automoton droning away, trying to make it up as he goes along.

    Other than that, he’s a really great guy.

  5. I’m not sure it’s bureacracy so much as ideology that Brennan and Napolitano are caught up in. In a similar vein, when asked about trying Abdulmutallab as a civilian, Brennan could only repeat the talking points that that’s the way we need to do it, and that we have things “on the table” to induce the suspect to give us information. There was no ability to argue a case for one course of action against another.
    Once you embrace a world view that is based on unrealistic assumptions, such as the ideas that terrorists are made by poverty and ignorance, or by America’s misbehavior, it becomes very difficult to adopt behaviors based on alternative assumptions, such as that a wealthy banker’s son could really be a terrorist, and not just someone who has information about terrorists in Yemen, or that giving terrorists full civilian rights even though they have never even resided here robs us of useful information and probably does not win their respect. (AFter all, we tried the blind sheik yet 9/11 was not averted.) Then, since you can’t really think freely about what to do next, you take refuge in bureaucratic classifications. These constitute special knowledge, developed by those with similar ideology to yours, and probably not understood by the public, so mentioning these classifications will get the public off your back as you continue to work your basic ideological plan, hoping that it will gain traction after a while though it hasn’t yet.

  6. This talk of failure to “connect the dots” is baloney. There weren’t many dots that needed to be connected. This was a lot simpler than those connect-the-dots puzzles we did as kids — where you had to connect a lot of dots in the right sequence to see the picture.

    Here, we had Dot One: Credible evidence of terrorist connections or sympathies. He was turned in by a respected Nigerian businessman, who just happened to be his father, for goodness’ sake. We were warned he was a dangerous radical.

    Dot Two is he doesn’t get on an airplane, or at least has to go through the thorough proctological exam that they randomly give granny from Great Falls.

    Connect Dot One to Dot Two by the most direct means and you have what is called a straight line in geometric circles.

    The objection is that the list would be too long if we included everybody on whom we had credible evidence of jihadist connections. There could be false positives.

    But the lack of perfection does not mean lack of utility. My garage is full of tools that aren’t perfect.

    And if you want to compare utility, how useful is it to plan on interviewing the Knickerbomber (nice word!) AFTER he lands?

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