on May 22, 2006
Why can't there be more books like this one? This slim volume contains more insight than many books three times its size. "Uncertain Shield" is a follow-up to Posner's previous book "Surprise Attacks", and while either book can stand on its own, I recommend reading both. Surprise Attacks addressed the deficiencies in the 9/11 Commission's recommendation, and the resulting flaws in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. In "Uncertain Shield," Posner extends his critique to include the recommendations of the WMD Commission.
One of Posner's major arguments in "Uncertain Shield" is that that WMD Commission's recommendations actually contradicted its own observations. The intelligence community's inability to accurately determine Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities was a problem of "groupthink" - always a potential problem in any intelligence system, but one exacerbated with greater centralization. Oddly, the WMD Commission, nevertheless, recommended even greater centralization.
Posner argues that the approach for both the 9/11 and the WMD Commission was to assumed that intelligence was broken without determining the limitations inherit in the business of intelligence. He criticizes both commissions for rushing to recommend reorganization of the intelligence community without examining the unintended consequences of that reorganization. Drawing on established organizational theory, Posner shows us some of those consequences. For example, both commissions failed to distinguish coordination from command, advocating a top heavy organization, far removed from the subtle indicators that intelligence depends on for accurate prediction.
Posner is critical of the WMD Commission for making recommendations base only on shallow analysis. For example, the commission recommended that advancement within the intelligence community should be based on merit. While in theory it's difficult to argue with that recommendation, in practice determining merit in the context of an intelligence organization (and government in general) is difficult. As both history and theory have shown, without having a clear measurement for merit, this can lead to waste and inefficiency. Should we reward the quantity of intelligence sources, or the quality of intelligence sources? Quantity is objective and easily measured, but with regards to intelligence, quantity and quality often have an inverse relationship. On the other hand, if we're going to insist on rewarding quality, then we need to know how to measure it objectively, otherwise, we risk replacing effectiveness with intra-office politicking. These are the types of issues the WMD Commission simply glossed over.
Posner argues in favor of the creation of a domestic intelligence service- an American MI-5. He addresses both the security needs for, and the civil liberty concerns about such an organization. Applying organizational theory, Posner, shows that creation of an intelligence unit inside the FBI will fail, because of the incompatibility of a law enforcement culture and intelligence culture in the same organization. While the FBI measures success on the number of arrests leading to successful prosecution, intelligence work is less specific towards that goal, looking at trends and recruiting sources. Addressing the concerns of civil libertarians, Posner dispels the myth that the requirement of a "criminal hook" will somehow protect us from government abuses. History shows no evidence of this assertion. On the contrary, more likely, it will lead to the greater government coercion. An intelligence organization, with no law enforcement capability, would seek cooperation and be less inclined to alienate Muslim members of the population. As Posner points out, it was a historical abuse of coercive law enforcement in the name of security that led the Allies to insist that the German government after World War II divide its domestic intelligence (information) functions from its law enforcement (coercive) functions. Previously, these two functions had been united in the SS.
Posner's does an excellent job throughout the book of pointing out the distorted incentives found in dysfunctional organization within intelligence. For example, no one in security was ever disciplined for not giving a risky candidate a security clearance. A candidate may have all the language and culture knowledge in the world, and he may be an indispensable asset to department seeking his employment, but security won't take the risk. Why should they? They will not benefit from his skills, and they will be blamed if he turns out to be a security breach. Posner suggests that it would be better to let security make an official recommendation, and let the department managers be responsible for determining the level of risk they are willing to accept - measuring the proper balance between mission accomplishment and security concerns. The managers would also be in a better the position to restrict the candidate from certain types of access within their department.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding the current upheavals in the intelligence community, and who wants to understand real issues apart from the partisan rhetoric. I would also recommend this book for anyone looking for good case studies in organizational theory. This book shows how theory can be applied in a useful, coherent, and common sense argument.