Fits and Starts
Op-Ed, The Washington Times
August 25, 2005
Author: Daniel B. Prieto, Former Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Former Research Director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative, 2004-2005
The recent safe return of the space shuttle is cause for celebration, but not a return to glory for NASA. The failure to fix the foam-shedding problem that doomed Columbia in 2003 has severe implications for NASA's future. Surprisingly, it also sheds light on reforms related to September 11. In both cases, grand failures — the Challenger and Columbia accidents in 1986 and 2003 for NASA, and the September 11 and Iraq WMD failures for the intelligence community — spurred highly visible efforts to fix broken organizations. As continued shuttle safety issues show, this is easier said than done. To ensure that intelligence reform stays on track, it is important to understand why even catastrophe often fails to spur successful reform.
The shuttle's safety problems run deeper than engineering. After Challenger, the investigative Rogers Commission identified "O-ring" failure as the accident's immediate cause but eventually faulted NASA's entire organization for allowing the launch despite a known design flaw. NASA reluctantly adopted reforms to address problems similar to those faced by the intelligence community today: poor information sharing, bureaucratic rivalry and incentives adverse to making safety and security a top priority. After Challenger, safety operations were centralized and the internal process to clear launches was altered to give more voice to safety concerns.
As shuttle flights resumed, reforms appeared to be working. But in reality, the centralized safety office was a paper tiger, lacking real authority to stop a launch. Outside experts knew that reform had been derailed — no fewer than five independent assessments sounded the alarm — but NASA and Congress did little to fix the situation, leading directly to the Columbia disaster. In a redux of Challenger, the Columbia investigation concluded the fundamental cause of NASA's safety failure was organizational. The foam debris on Discovery's launch signals these problems still have not been resolved.
NASA's failure to fix itself despite intense public scrutiny and repeated warnings illustrates how post-disaster reform fizzles.
First, a flurry of initial activity creates the illusion that restructuring is succeeding, even though little meaningful change has yet been achieved. As more time passes without another incident, a false confidence arises that limited reforms are working: another shuttle has not blown up; we have not been attacked again.
Second, conflicts of interest make it difficult for agencies to fix themselves, imposing a major impediment to reform. The agencies that need fixing and Congress itself have a strong sense of ownership over ongoing reforms so they are likely to discount outside criticism.
Third, as backsliding on reforms happens in plain sight, watchdogs are powerless to get things back on track. The mistaken perception that reforms have succeeded makes it harder to raise objections when signs of danger appear.
This dynamic of failed reform should give Americans pause if they think September 11 intelligence fixes are a sure bet.
While sweeping changes followed September 11 — White House information sharing directives, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Intelligence Director — some reform efforts have already been derailed. Bureaucratic power plays by the CIA and FBI relegated DHS to a junior seat at the intelligence table. While the September 11 commission recommended giving the DNI ultimate authority over the intelligence community, Congress defended the Pentagon's turf and sharply limited the DNI's power.
Responsibility for the president's daily intelligence brief gives the DNI some stature as first among equals. Other than that, the DNI has a small staff and negligible budget power. Furthermore, many of the behaviors that contributed to the failures of September 11 have yet to abate: persistent document overclassification, ossified notions of data ownership, insufficient reliance on open-source intelligence and an over-reliance on lawyers rather than common sense to determine when information can be shared.
First, Director John Negroponte needs all the help he can get to tackle these problems. Strong support from the president is essential, and thankfully President Bush has affirmed Mr. Negroponte's powers over FBI and Pentagon intelligence activities.
Second, Congress, expert commissions and the media must maintain aggressive oversight. Continued advocacy by September 11 commissioners well after their investigation's conclusion are a welcome development.
Finally, true reform demands courage and creativity by the men and women within the intelligence community itself. Employees from top to bottom must be willing to question day-to-day procedures and longstanding rules that make them more likely to hoard than share knowledge and must become more assertive about forging trust with counterparts in other agencies.
As more time passes without another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the sense of urgency among reformers will wane, threatening to leave reforms incomplete. Mr. Negroponte must not be lulled into complacency, as NASA managers were in the seventeen years between Challenger and Columbia. NASA's recent history teaches us that Washington does not easily learn lessons from even catastrophic failure. So long as we learn to prevent good reform from going bad, disaster need not strike twice.
Daniel B. Prieto is research director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at the Belfer Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Christopher M. Kirchhoff served as editor of the Space Shuttle Columbia Investigation Report and is now a fellow at the Kennedy School.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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