Voice

Two cheers for bureaucratic redundancy; I said, two cheers for redundancy

I suspect everyone inside the Beltway will be discussing the first part of the Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series on the intelligence and homeland security apparatus that has mushroomed since the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the 5,400 word opening salvo by Dana Priest and William Arkin doesn't pull any punches in its lead:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 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.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation's other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

Priest and Arkin are top-notch reporters and analysts, and a lot of the material in this report is pretty damning. It's well worth the read.

I have one small quibble, however, which is with the "redundancy and waste" argument about multiple agencies doing the same work. This is a standard argument in favor of rationalization, and it's not always wrong. It should be noted, however, that some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism.

Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X. Let's say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best -- the A-Team. The A-Team does it's job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X. That's still 5% that is missed.

Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit. This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots. Let's even stipulate that we're talking about the B-team here, and they'll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X.

If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently -- and this is an important if -- then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%. So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%. That ain't nothing.

Now, there are a lot of assumptions that need to hold for this effect to hold. Priest and Arkin suggest that some of these assumptions don't hold (many inteligence analysts relying on the same information). They also note the rise of segemented information, however, which leads me to think that some redundancy might be a good thing.

Admittedly, a world of 1,271 agencies tackling this question is probably one of redundancy run amok. I'm just saying that a little redundancy is a very good thing.

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Daniel W. Drezner

The complexities of 21st century statecraft

Jesse Lichtenstein's New York Times Magazine profile of the State Department's Jared Cohen and Alec Ross does a fine job of discussing the pros and cons of government efforts to use Twitter, Facebook et al in order to promote U.S. interests.  FP's Evgeny Morozov is quoted liberally as the voice of skepticism. 

What I found particularly interesting was the way that this kind of advocacy has turned Cohen and Ross into Internet celebrities: 

On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen’s recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft....

One apparent paradox of 21st-century statecraft is that while new technologies have theoretically given a voice to the anonymous and formerly powerless (all you need is a camera phone to start a movement), they have also fashioned erstwhile faceless bureaucrats into public figures. Ross and Cohen have a kind of celebrity in their world — and celebrity in the Twitter age requires a surfeit of disclosure. Several senior members of the State Department with whom I spoke could not understand why anyone would want to read microdispatches from a trip to Twitter or, worse, from a State Department staff member’s child’s basketball game. But Secretary Clinton seemed neither troubled nor bewildered. “I think it’s to some extent pervasive now,” she told me in March. “It would be odd if the entire world were moving in that direction and the State Department were not.” Half of humanity is under 30, she reminded me. “Much of that world doesn’t really know as much as you might think about American values. One of the ways of breaking through is by having people who are doing the work of our government be human beings, be personalized, be relatable.”

I'm really not sure if network diplomacy will work, but these grafs highlight a looming problem even if it does work.  Web 2.0 users succeed when they generate idiosyncratic, personalized content.  Governments, on the other hand, are team operations, designed to harness different organizations into a common message.  Ross  and Cohen are clearly smart, talented people, but at some point they or someone like them in the government will commit an Octavia Nasr -- and what then?   

Question to readers:  is it possible for foreign policymakers to be good at Web 2.0 and good at traditional bureaucratese? 

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