Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: 'Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror' by Richard Miniter

What this well-written and well-researched book taught me, a retired, ex-member of one of the first mid-level interagency terrorist task forces created during the Clinton administration, is this: (1) that not all rightwing ideologues are wing-nuts; (2) sometimes when consultants (who have perfected a culture of raping the government for contract money by scaring them) say the sky is falling, it is; and (3) whenever you think that someone else in the government is dealing with the problem: they aren't (you are it!)

Nearly everything in this book is factually true, except the context of the government culture of problem-solving is totally wrong or missing. Whenever a new problem emerges, the bureaucratic culture has to adjust, and its way of doing business has to be reset so that it can evolve into thinking in an entirely different and new direction -- towards a radical new mindset in the case of a one-man terrorist. Adjusting the bureaucracy is like turning a ship around.

Why is this so? Because usually we have been lulled to sleep by so many scare tactics that we are loathe to believe anyone who seeks to scare us into spending more money to patch up new security problems. Scaring government bureaucrats into spending on security problems is the most common way to cajole them into "letting" new contracts. Why? Because the implicit threat is that if you do not give us this contract, and close this security threat, it will be your butt that remains uncovered. And as anyone knows, CYA is the first amendment of all government and corporate employees.

So, I remember very clearly what my reaction was when Richard Clark was a paid consultant, and one of his team members was invited to give a talk to our interagency task force. My reaction was: this guy sounds like "Chicken Little;" here we go again with this "the sky is falling BS? This bin Laden guy must be ten-feet tall and carrying nuclear and chemical weapons in each of his back pockets? Plus, look at the presenter's eyes and his shrill presentation, the problem cannot be as bad as he is claiming it to be, for if it were, surely someone else in the government higher up the food chain, with higher security clearances and more responsibility would already know about it and would be "on it," period. That is exactly what I thought.

At least at my level, our bureaucratic culture had not yet been properly socialized to be able to accept and properly assess a one-man terrorist threat from the other side of the world, to American security. One thus could argue that this attitude was just a special case of one hand in the government not talking to another; or a case of those charged with acting not having enough information to act; or worse, a case of our consultancy process being so corrupt that at the working level at least, we all tend to act as if it is a game in which all contracts are rigged, and if the word does not "come down" from on high that this guy as the "fix in," then we just ignore everything that he and his people say?

I am not using these examples as excuses. This is exactly as I remember my thought process when bin Laden's name was first introduced in an interagency terrorist task force that I chaired. In fact, I remember that I reported to my boss that this guy (the presenter a subordinate of Clark's named Bob Wollan) came to the meeting "crying wolf" again in the worse kind of way. If my report was relied upon, then either I am responsible for the USG doing nothing about bin Laden, or the system was broke.

At the risk of belaboring a fine point, I believe this author, a worthy adversarial voice, even though it drips with rightwing vituperation, has a compelling narrative, and had it properly taken into account the true nature of the bureaucratic culture, this would have been a "barn-burner" of a book. Since it failed to do so, it is only a five star presentation.

Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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