Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Incompetence in Government

I've just finished reading the book, Killer Spy, by Peter Maas which is about the CIA traitor spy Aldrich Ames. For some reason, I've been interested in the stories of contemporary American traitors and have read similar stories about Jonathan Pollard (Navy employee who gave secrets to Israel), the Walker family (a navy family that made spying a cottage industry), and James Hall (US Army warrant officer who sold highly classified communications security information to the East Germans and the Soviets) and others. In terms of damage to US intelligence operations, Aldrich Ames has to rate way up there near or at the top of the list. His revelations to the Soviets resulted in the rolling up of numerous CIA intelligence operations which in turn resulted in the deaths of numerous US-recruited agents.

A consistent undercurrent in this story is the downright incompetence, inefficiency and malfeasance of the CIA. Ames fed material to the Soviet Union and later the security services of the Russian Federation for many years. During this time, he was an known alcoholic, flunked agency lie detector tests, left plenty of evidence of spending beyond his means, and the agency was aware that he had failed to report contacts with Soviet representatives. Ames frequently entered counterintelligence sections of the CIA where he was no longer assigned, trolling for information. This was a clear and repeated violation of the simple "need to know" principle of security.

I well recall that during the Cold War, the CIA was the dreaded know-all agency in the eyes of our Iron Curtain enemies. Mention of the letters "CIA" and people around the world would shivver. They did not know that it was just another bureacratic government agency, fumbling along, often with indifferent, sometimes careless employees.

Except for a big jump in the unemployment statistics, were half of all federal government employees to be laid off, most people in the US wouldn't know the difference. When you get right down to it, most government agencies are reactive in nature. Since most of them exist to perform a regulatory function, they mostly wait for events to happen and come to them. For this reason, it's difficult to measure efficiency in terms of work produced. So, an efficient employee who empties his in-box quickly is probably working on the same playing field as a slothful one who drags his feet along and whose in-box stays full. I've heard it all before, "Each individual worker has different capabilities."

Saying it another way, most federal agencies don't produce anything with some notable exceptions. The US Postal Service might be termed a productive agency, in that they perform a service and it's of a measurable quantity. Of course they are
flawed and suffer some of the same problems of inefficiency as other agencies. Other examples of "productive" government agencies might be the Bonneville Power Authority or the Tennessee Valley Authority, both of which actually provide a service, i.e., electrical power. Interestingly, these "productive" agencies that I mention have been reviewed for possible privatization and governmental divestiture in past; that's right, get rid of the only government entities that actually produce something and save money for people.

Many of the other government agencies are either road-block or obstacle creators or they have some purpose for giving money away. Regulation wouldn't be a bad thing in all cases, but so often in recent years we have seen so many examples where such regulation either favored special interests or didn't work at all.

Part of the problem with efficiency in federal employment are worker protections. Some of these go back in history to times when employees could be punished for their viewpoints in a system of political patronage. The protections were put in place to protect them from arbitrary management abuses. The political patronage system went away long ago but not the protections. In the meantime, they have also come under the protection of EEO, unions in some cases, and the nation-wide fear of litigation. Consequently, it's very difficult for federal employees to be let go for cause. Simply being a lousy worker won't do it (as it would in the private sector). Aldrich Ames was a good example. Even before he turned to spying, he was known to be an often ineffective employee and some of this was documented (but not all of it because much slipped through the cracks). Do we really want to retain ineffective employees in our intelligence services? The CIA didn't do any more to shed themselves of employees like Ames than the Social Security Administration might have.

Then we come to the Department of Defense. There isn't a valid argument for eliminating this agency, as a structure that provides for a national defense will always be needed given human nature. However, this one is overripe for reform. Many years ago, I worked with a Regular Army Major who espoused that the armed services, in addition to their normal function in providing national defense, also performed a service of social welfare. One facet of this service was to provide an employer of last resort for the unemployed and for youth with a lack if direction in their lives. The other main facet of this theory was that defense expenditures kept defense contractors in money, which not only enriched companies and corporations, but provided jobs for those employed by such enterprises. As time goes by, this theory is more and more supported by facts in evidence as we continue to maintain a large standing military.

There are plenty of arguments for not keeping a large standing force, number one of which is a serious reappraisal of defense priorities. Number two would be a realistic look at what can be financially sustained. Three and beyond involve considerations as to how warfare is likely to be waged in the foreseeable future. The days of elaborate and fantastically expensive super weapons systems might logically be considered a thing of the past. Laser beams nor scalar weapons are going to be any good against a suicide bomber with a dirty nuke in a suitcase. Reducing the active force and rebuilding the National Guard and reserve forces as true week-end warrior outfits might help offset the argument for having a force in place when it's needed in a hurry. In recent times, the reserve components have been looked upon as mere pools of easy manpower for the active forces.