Mickey says Coleen Rowley was

Mickey says Coleen Rowley was wrong. He’s right. And wrong.

Mickey had a brief entry this week on Coleen Rowley’s testimony and the issue of which is more to blame for intelligence failures : the bureaucrats at the FBI, or the laws they must follow.

While I am taking to heart Mickey’s own solemn admonishment to “Always trust content from kausfiles!” (like we didn’t already?), I think the Mickster overplays his hand slightly on this one.

He starts out OK, pointing out (correctly) that there is more than just the problem of Those Damned Bureaucrats to deal with at the FBI in his reference to a piece by Stuart Taylor in the National Journal. His money quote, referring to the need under current law for a suspect to be a member of a terrorist group to merit full surveillance, is bang on as well: “So if it’s just one guy who wants to blow up the Superbowl, we leave him alone!”

Flush with this nice turn of the phrase, though, Mickey slides over the line with his closer: “The problem is less dumb bureaucrats than dumb law.”

Well, maybe. There are a whole heck of a lot of things that went wrong here, and I’m not convinced that we’re in a position yet to point definitively to which factor was the most significant (although to be fair, Mickey’s statement only explicitly compares two of them). But here’s my list:

– A culture of caution at the FBI and other agencies where not screwing up was viewed as more important than catching the bad guys

– A particular fear of anything that resembled ethnic profiling (i.e., looking at Arabs taking flight lessons), particularly due to recent embarrassments in that area (i.e., Wen Ho Lee)

– Legal restrictions that set the bar for surveillance requests unreasonably high in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to protect civil liberties

– Antiquated processes for analyzing incoming intelligence information which resulted in a failure to be able to add 2 and 2 and reach a number somewhere between 3 and 5.

To make matters more complex, these factors aren’t independent, but all blend together and cause nasty little feedback loops with each other: if there was a culture more attuned to catching the bad guys than not rocking the boat, wouldn’t somebody have bitched enough to get their analysis processes fixed long ago? And if there wasn’t that culture of caution, couldn’t a smart FBI lawyer have made a legitimate argument that the case Rowley complained about had met the standard of probable cause?

If that argument had been made and was rejected, then I’d put more credence in the idea that the problem is the law, not the bureaucrats. But the problem is that to my understanding, the folks submitting that request didn’t even really try — a token effort was made at best, and the request was torpedoed at worst. That suggests to me that the law may indeed be a major part of the problem — but the bureaucrats are just as big a part.

That said, Mickey is absolutely right to keep hammering on his point o’ the week: that those who just want to blame the bureaucrats are wrong. Blaming the bureaucrats is appropriate. But thinking that they are the only problem is the same kind of oversimplification that got us into this mess in the first place.