But surely more information ought to be a good thing, right? Maybe. But the U.S. government has a long record of creating new bureaucratic structures to overcome presumed information logjams, and the results aren't terribly encouraging. (Just take the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) Perhaps the APB will succeed in creating a high-powered "fusion cell" that brings together diverse streams of intelligence into a single channel whose custodians are too powerful to ignore. But don't hold your breath.
The very proposition that past genocides might have been prevented "had we only known" is highly arguable. Contrary to popular belief, the Holocaust did not happen under a veil of ignorance. The New York Times and Edward R. Murrow both reported on it in 1942. (Murrow even used the phrase "extermination camps.") On December 17, 1942, the United States and ten other Allied governments issued a statement denouncing Hitler's "bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" of the Jews. President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- who, as President Obama noted in passing on Monday, received detailed reports on Auschwitz from former inmate Jan Karski -- gave a speech in which he described the "wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe" by Hitler and his henchmen as "one of the blackest crimes of all history."
We can argue about whether Roosevelt could have done more to prevent Auschwitz and other Nazi camps from continuing their operations. (I'm inclined to doubt that there was much he could have done in practical terms, and even Jewish groups seem to have been divided over the issue at the time.) But we can't claim that he didn't know what was happening.
The same applies to the President Clinton's response to the Balkan Wars or the genocide in Rwanda. As for the latter, just take a look at this remarkable collection of documents posted online by the National Security Archive. There was plenty of information available; you just had to want to pay attention. As for the Balkans, Herbert Hirsch, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, recalls coming to Washington early in the Clinton Administration at the invitation of one of his former students who was working in the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department. The ex-student showed him seven fat volumes filled with UN-requested intelligence on atrocities committed by various forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia. "We knew exactly what was going on," he says. It is certainly hard to argue that contemporary news coverage of the war in Bosnia was scanty or tentative.
In both cases, President Clinton and his policymaking apparatus had powerful institutional motives for inaction. The disaster in Somalia was still fresh in their minds. They feared electoral fallout over the potential deaths of U.S. service members. And, perhaps most importantly, they weren't sure which vital American interests were at stake. I'm not saying these were good reasons, but they're certainly useful if you want to understand why the president made the decisions he did.
By the same token, President Obama's reluctance to take a more forceful stand on Syria or Sudan has little to do with lack of a bureaucratically weighty "early warning system" and everything do with the extent of political will in the White House. Right now the desire to do more on either issue is clearly absent. The Obama Administration intervened in Libya because it concluded that the downside of action was relatively small compared with the benefits. It hasn't intervened in Syria or Sudan because so far it hasn't been persuaded that such actions are in its interest. Alter that calculation and you shift the policy. But I doubt that an interagency working group is likely to be the agent of change.