Monday, January 4, 2010

Bureaucratic Infighting: The Underwear Bomber


A few days ago, there was a headline on Shadow Government that read: "Someone's head should roll, but whose?"

The article was about the enormous bureaucratic mess-up that allowed the "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, to nearly blow up an airplane on Christmas Day. Somehow, despite several red flags--such as his stay in Yemen and warnings from his own father, a Nigerian diplomat, that his son had become a radical Muslim--Abdulmuttalab was allowed to board a plane into the U.S. Fortunately, it was Abdulmuttalab's own mistake which (apparently) saved all the passengers from death in the sky. It is a depressing story of mistake after mistake by various governmental agencies. President Obama has called the underwear bomber affair a "systemic failure" and promises to find out who was responsible for it. The article from Shadow Government posits one possible cause for this sytemic failure, besides individual stupidity: bureaucratic infighting.

In the U.S. intelligence community, there is an alphabet soup of agencies responsible for detecting and investigating these matters: FBI, CIA, NSA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security, and probably some others that I am forgetting. But, even though they all share the same mission of protecting American security, they do not all get along. Each one is jealous of the others, distrusts the others, and is generally nasty toward the others. And whenever something like the underwear bomber happens, they point their fingers at each other, never taking the blame themselves.

But, such is the nature of bureaucracies. Nearly every government agency wants more power and influence. The key way to grow in power and influence is to fight other government agencies for a larger share of the operating budget and of decision-making power. This is the classic example of a turf fight. Yet, each agency also tries to insulate itself from responsibility for its actions (or inaction, as the case may be). One way is to institute procedures so complicated and arcane that a failure to act can be attributed to a small mistake in procedure, over which it would seemingly be unfair to fire a bureaucrat. Moreover, there is in most bureaucracies an instinct to protect one's own, and never question someone from inside the agency. A related way to deter being held accountable is to blur the lines of communication, to make it unclear who has to report to whom.

But, whenever a big mistake occurs and lands the agency in the news, we are confronted with the essential question: "Whose head should roll?" However, the question of responsibility is not nearly as easy a question to answer. This is where Congressional investigative committees get involved. Independent investigations supposedly give the public a chance to find out the answer to this question. In reality, these investigations really give the chance to the different agencies involved in the mess to take their fight directly to Congress; they get to play the blame game in public, while making the public think that someone's head is going to roll.

And that, after all, is what we individual citizens demand from those in a position of authority: we want to see heads roll--at least metaphorical heads. In other words, we demand personal responsibility. However, bureaucracies are a maze of anonymous procedures, guidelines, and goals, and often real people are manipulating the twists of the maze to avoid responsibility. It's this use of anonymity to avoid responsibility, more than the sometimes epic bungling, I would venture, that we find most disturbing about bureaucracies.

A tad cynical? Perhaps. But, at least we can have a good laugh about all this tomorrow.
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