The blame game is ubiquitous in Washington, DC. This quote and others floating around exemplify exactly the wrong approach to improving our country's anti-terrorist system.
Let's think through the problem. Tens of thousands of patriotic Americans work in federal agencies trying to protect our shores. They face a threat of unknown dimensions, involving ten of thousands of possible bad guys who want to hurt us.
Statistically, even if our system worked very, very well, one or two terrorists could slip through and do something dastardly. However, we have to admit that the system may not work so well.
When I go through airport security, I am prompted to mix historical metaphors. Our TSA Red Coats employ a Maginot Line against a group of guerrilla fighters who change venues, clothing, and weapons to penetrate our static defense system.
When they break through, we bolt on a new technical solution. Will full body scanners make a difference? Yes, they can see the outlines of people's bodies, but they cannot see what might have been put in body orifices or what is hidden by flaps of fat, or what might have been swallowed. Do we think that a terrorist will worry about being being physically uncomfortable for a few hours as s/he heads to a suicide mission?
I admit that such systems have some deterrent effect, but they can be bypassed. And usually with low-tech approaches.
The problem facing our security services is how to encourage and enable all their loyal employees to act in a cooperative and creative fashion. Fast moving targets like terrorists change their stripes often, but they will leave traces -- digital traces, physical traces, relationship traces (think of that Nigerian father). Our security folks need to feel the freedom to follow those traces and to report them within and among the national agencies. They need a culture that thanks them for following gut instincts and calling out problems and near misses.
I admittedly don't know much about the culture of these agencies, but I can guess that a predominant motivation is CYA. I say this because I know how large organizations work, and it is the very unusual one that rewards people for calling out problems. We see the opposite in hospitals, financial services, and manufacturing. And we see it big time in the government, where the body politic, with quotes like the one above, tends to encourage that kind of motivation.
I have spent a lot of time in these blog pages exploring how to achieve continuous process improvement in a complex organization. I gave the example of Tom Botts at Royal Dutch Shell, who realized that the fault behind two fatalities lay with the leaders of the company, not with the workers who strayed to the wrong part of an oil rig. I summarized, too, the approach of John Toussaint and others in the hospital arena and Paul O'Neill at Alcoa, and forwarded advice from Steven Spear.
Contrast those lessons with what you are hearing in Washington, DC.
I'd like to see Mr. Obama help the agencies get past the blame game that is going on right now and focus on organizational, along with technological, strategies that enhance their ability to ameliorate terrorist threats. He clearly has the leadership ability to do that.
But here's the rub, and it is both a political one and a personal one. The political one is this. He has to persuade our citizens that he is strong-willed enough and competent enough to fight the terrorism that heads our way, but he would also need to persuasively reframe the manner in which he intends to carry this out.
The personal one is this. Our President has never run a complex organization. Does he know how to do it? Does he have advisors who do? I hope so, or we will just see a replay of this blog's headline sometime in a year or two.