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Our Homeland Security Dilemma

Homeland SecurityThe Washington Post just carried a three part series (published July 19, 20, 21, 2010) on "Top Secret America," the growing array of security services that have grown up with the "war on terror." According to the story, "the top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."

To some extent this scenario follows from the personalities of the men who started the process, George W. Bush, Dick Chaney, and Donald Rumsfeld–a combination of superficiality, helter skelter, paranoia and power madness. Eight years of building along these uncoordinated lines gave us over 1,000 government agencies along with some 2000 allied private companies working on "programs related to counter terrorism, homeland security and [what passes for] intelligence in some 10,000 locations across the United States." This has created a major, if very messy, industry.

At least 854,000 people are estimated to be employed in this vast venture. And they pursue their goals in a fashion that is replete with "redundancy and waste." The major products of this industry are some "50,000 intelligence reports a year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored." In other words, this might be a way for the government to subsidize the economy and put people to work, but in terms of a coordinated and workable response to terrorist threats it is probably nothing to brag about. No one knows if all this is really making us safer. On the other hand, if you have a ideologically driven agenda, you are bound to be able to find exactly what you want to hear somewhere among so wide ranging number of reports.
The inevitable tendency of the more efficient members of the Obama administration will be to rationalize this clutter. They will want to reduce the redundancy and create a truly coordinated intelligence "czardom." What are the implications of such an effort? Well, let us consult an expert on bureaucracy, Max Weber, the pioneering sociologist who laid the basis for our modern understanding of the topic. Weber explains that modern bureaucracies "develop the more perfectly the more bureaucracy is dehumanized, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special virtue." Thus, a proper bureaucracy is a system that is solely rule based. You have a job and you do it according to the rules of the system. No doubt some of the agencies and companies noted above work to this rule, but they are "all over the place." Any reformed, non-redundant, centralized "top secret America" will also have to work on this model.
But of course this is an ideal picture of the situation. Bureaucracies do not come out of the ether. They are born within a socio-political environment while proceeding to manufacture a sub-culture of their own. To put it another way, the bureaucrats get their marching orders from a political or business elite. And the worldview of the elite comes from the socio-political environment they live in, which in turn can make a real difference to the orders they issue. What sort of environment shapes their outlooks? Is it the business environment of IBM, the more or less democratic environment of the U.S. or the U.K., the religious environment of the Vatican, the totalitarian environment of Stalin’s USSR or Hitler’s Germany, or what? Once the leaders, seeing the world from their particular environmental vantage point, give the marching orders, the bureaucrats will carry them out according to the impersonal, "dehumanized," but universal bureaucratic sub-culture described by Weber.
Unfortunately, this depiction of things means that any move toward a more efficient security bureaucracy may very well prove to be more dangerous than the terrorism it seeks to prevent. Making the equivalent of 1,000 secret government agencies and their 2000 private sector allies operate in truly efficient fashion surely must multiply many fold the impact of people monitoring our e-mails, taping our telephones, getting our names wrong as we try to board airliners, visiting our homes to ask us about our last trip abroad or the opinions we expressed in a recent op-ed. The list will get longer and longer as the socio-political environment of the United States gets more paranoid.

And the bureaucrat who carries out orders will act, as Weber notes, "without regard for persons." He or she won’t give a fig for you or me and the circumstances in which we do what we do. He or she will have their mission and their bureaucratic rules, all of which will be sufficient to define right and wrong. Who does this bureaucrat look like? It is not your neighborhood policeman helping your aged mother cross the street. He or she is more likely some variant on Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who just did his job according to the rules of a very efficient bureaucracy carrying out marching orders that flowed from the socio-political environment of Nazi Germany.
That is our dilemma. We have created for ourselves an expensive, unwieldy security network that is already intrusive in our lives, but perhaps not as bad as it could be. If we make it more efficient, the very nature of the beast will magnify its intrusiveness. It will certainly become more of a threat to our way of life than al-Qaeda can ever be.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? There sure is, and that is to treat the causes of our terror problem rather than just the symptoms. To ask what it is about our policy behavior that contributed to the 9/11 attacks and sustains whatever terror threat is out there. And to determine whether a change in those policies would actually make us safer while enhancing our collective national interest. That approach, however, has been politically stymied since September 11 by powerful special interests. And so, before our lobby controlled government will go down the road to a true cure, its operatives will allow our democratic ideals to be displaced by an ever growing security bureaucracy.

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