Lessons for the War on Terrorism


Jul 26, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on July 26, 2002.

The war on terrorism can learn some lessons from an earlier effort with a similar name, the war on poverty. Two parallels are particularly instructive. One is the understanding that such wars are not won but that fighting them can make matters better than they would have been without the battle.

The other is that the institutional structures created to fight the war can be as important as the conflict itself. Experience suggests some counterintuitive lessons for the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

For a while, those of us charged with planning for the Office of Economic Opportunity really thought that we could abolish poverty in the United States; our plan showed how. We were wrong, of course. One can blame the failure on politics, our own ineptitude and/or the Vietnam war. But politics always overrides "expertise" in running public programs—fortunately for democratic government. Ineptitude is the prudent assumption, and major outside events will always interfere.

We did not end poverty. But we opened opportunities for a lot of people. We helped many to get out of poverty, and we induced change in vital public and private institutions.

This happened over a period of eight years during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and the OEO directorship of Sargent Shriver, and during the presidency of Richard Nixon and the directorship of a young ex-congressman, Donald Rumsfeld, who brought with him an even younger assistant, Richard Cheney.

Those gentlemen in their latter-day roles have made clear that we cannot end terrorism any more than we could end poverty. More attacks will kill more Americans, maybe a lot more. Well-thought-through precautions, however, can thwart other attacks. We can never measure what did not happen, but when a future attack does succeed we should remember that others have failed.

We are going to live in a tough world for a long time, but it can be made less difficult. Restructuring can help.

The Office of Economic Opportunity was set up in 1964 for the reason that the Department of Homeland Security is now proposed—existing institutions were not doing the job. The Departments of Labor, Housing, Agriculture, and Health, Education and Welfare were carrying out their old routines in their old ways. Putting the new programs into the old bureaucracies with the Office of Economic Opportunity as "coordinator" would merely perpetuate the routines. But a super agency would be super clumsy.

Instead the Johnson administration violated all conventional wisdom by deliberately duplicating functions. The Office of Economic Opportunity had the right to comment to the White House and the Budget Bureau on the range of government activities. More important, it had a small budget of its own to set up parallel programs. The Job Corps, the Community Action Program and Head Start are examples.

The new programs had some problems of their own, of course, but the turf challenges to the old-line departments—recalibrate your programs to fight poverty or see them superseded—worked. By the end of the 1970s, OEO had disappeared and its programs had been absorbed into the old departments, but the departments themselves had become far more sensitive to their new tasks. Poverty had not been abolished but it had been significantly decreased, and many opportunities had been opened.

The months since Sept. 11 have demonstrated that coordinating the war on terror can do little. Tom Ridge and his critics can testify to that.

The administration now proposes swinging to the opposite pole by creating a super department. But controlling many agencies pulling in many directions—including irrelevant directions like rescue at sea and salmonella inspection—will take years that the terrorists will not provide. Adding in the CIA and the FBI, as has been suggested, would make it much worse.

One small piece of the proposal, however, does contain the key to the most essential need: intelligence analysis. The government had a lot of information before Sept. 11. It has much more now, but nobody knows what to do with it, hence the endless series of meaningless alerts. It must be sorted out to find the real threats.

Analysts abound in the agencies whose bureaucratic routines failed to anticipate Sept. 11 and have been baffled by anthrax-by-mail. They need challenges, and the OEO experience suggests how.

The bureau for intelligence analysis proposed as part of the new department should kidnap some of the best analysts from within the government, mix them with others from outside, and say: "You're not FBI or CIA anymore, you're Homeland Security. You have access to anything you want. Go analyze!"

Not only would the new bureau produce its own analyses, but the old agencies would be mightily motivated to sharpen theirs.

Robert A. Levine, a senior economic consultant at RAND, was assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for planning and research. He is the author of "The Poor Ye Need Not Have With You: Lessons From the War on Poverty" and "Public Planning: Failure and Redirection." He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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