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Prudence Bushnell
Diplomat

Prudence Bushnell

As CEO of Sage Associates, Ambassador Prudence Bushnell lectures and consults on international and leadership topics.

A bitter lesson we haven't learned

Q: This week's Washington Post investigative series on the government's burgeoning intelligence network prompts the question: Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is "too-big-to-manage" just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?

As the former U.S. ambassador to Kenya in 1998, I can only shake my head in sorrowful frustration at the reports about our intelligence community coming out of the Washington Post. At the time our embassy was blown up, the intelligence community was small indeed by today's standards. Small enough to be competently led. It was not.

Notwithstanding a secret Grand Jury indictment of bin Laden, the National Security Agency intercepts of his communications, the scrutiny of the bin Laden-focused Alec Station at the CIA, the investigations of the FBI's I-49 squad, repeated tactical warnings, and my own two-year efforts to bring attention to our embassy's vulnerabilities, the intel/law enforcement/policy community was unable to prevent the first two, soon forgotten, attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.

From the vantage of Planet Washington, although I was a senior career Foreign Service Officer and the president's personal representative with the responsibility to safeguard American lives in Kenya, I did not have a "need to know" about information vital to our safety. Absent field input, Washington attitudes and assumptions prevailed. To wit:

1. Nairobi was backwater, so why would anyone bother to blow it up?

2. Yes, the embassy was located in the city that housed the well-known and long-established al Qaeda East Africa military cell, but birds do not foul their nests...or whatever the metaphor.

3. Yes, Ambassador Bushnell and then-Commander of the U.S. Central Command, General Zinni, had communicated their security concerns about the embassy, but they were merely field professionals, "civilians," to the intel/law enforcement/political community of the time.

4. Yes, an intercepted letter from an al Qaeda gang-banger in 1997 indicated the presence of "brothers and engineers" in Mombasa, Kenya but the Nairobi cell had been "disrupted" following a CIA-FBI-Kenyan team raid that same year, so that was that.

5. Yes, a "walk-in" to the embassy a few months later warned of a truck bombing in Nairobi, but another intelligence service considered him a "flake."

6. And, yes, the Ambassador had defied the system to write a personal letter to the Secretary of State after being reprimanded for "overloading the circuits" about her security concerns, but there was no money and, anyway, the "experts" in Washington said the Nairobi terrorist threat was only medium.

7. No, none of the secret information about al Qaeda known in Washington by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the White House NSC was ever discussed with anyone at the Nairobi embassy - or any other embassy for that matter. Nor were pertinent facts held by the federal prosecutors in the South District of New York who were covertly trying to bring bin Laden to trial for his activities in Somalia in 1993. Why? The information was classified and compartmentalized.

8. Yes, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was blown up and so was the one in Tanzania... and that was a shame, but it did happen at the peak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so no, nothing much changed as a result.

The attacks on the United States through our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and later via a naval destroyer, the USS Cole, did not register strongly enough on Planet Washington to provoke the interagency review we needed to determine what is working and what needs changing in our efforts to deter terrorists.

Instead, after the debacle of September 11, 2001, Planet Washington declared war on these Islamist gang-bangers and threw money, people, arms, secrecy, constitutional infringements and a perpetual state of Orange at the problems they were creating. The lessons my colleagues and I learned -- as targets and survivors of an al Qaeda attack, foreign affairs professionals and leadership practitioners -- were never sought.

And now that I have assumed true civilian status as a retiree without an up-to-date security clearance, I for one never will be asked...or need to know...about my government's approach to terrorism. Instead, I must trust in Planet Washington's intel/law enforcement/political community. Thanks, Washington Post, for reminding me just what that means!

A problem of leadership? You bet. Flawed structure? You better believe it. The solution? Courage to confront what's not working. Likelihood? One can always hope.

By Prudence Bushnell

 |  July 19, 2010; 4:34 PM ET
Category:  Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Is there a common cause? | Next: Intel community in search of a purpose

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Madam Ambassador:

I understand and share your frustration with Planet Washington. However, political courage is a rare commodity, indeed. Do you have some other ideas that are just a bit more tangible and likely to occur? For instance, the "Jersey Girls" seem to have both the courage and the gravitas to kick start stuff! Why not give 'em a call?

Posted by: Kuehn | July 20, 2010 1:38 PM
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I LIKE YOUR STYLE.I HOPE RETIREMENT DOESN'T MEAN YOU'VE GIVEN UP. NO ONE CAN 'RETIRE' FROM THESE ISSUES GIVEN WHAT WE SEE TODAY. IT WAS A POLICE MATTER UNDER BILLIE, SANDY AND MADELINE AND IT PRODUCED DISASTER REGARDLESS OF WHAT DICK CLARK HAD TO SAY. NOW WE HAVE LEON RUNNING THE CIA. WHAT IN HADES IS HE DOING IN THAT JOB? WHEN I SEE THAT WE ARE SPENDING $40 BILLION ON HOMELAND SECURITY, I CHUCKLE. WE CAN PAY THE TERRORISTS TO 'RETIRE'. LASTLY, PRESIDENT OBAMA HAS FAILED TO PROJECT OUR GOODNESS AND STRENGTH TO THE WORLD. THAT SIMPLY INVITES MORE TROUBLE. STAYED TUNED.

Posted by: DANSHANTEAL1 | July 20, 2010 12:25 PM
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Even if you are the most ethical & moral person on the planet, you have to assume the power players and turf holders here in DC are Machiavellian and work within that setting (without compromising yourself-no Ollie Norths) to get things done. Chain of command here? No. Other ways of doing things? Definitely.

Posted by: katyjink | July 20, 2010 11:28 AM
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Funny how during Bush's term no one dare call it Planet Washington as even the Church had an office in the White House. Now it's attacks on all fronts because Obama isn't giving money out like it grows on trees. Cheney leaked Covert CIA Agent Plame's name and got her secret spies in Iran killed. We've been lied to as our President started two Wars as a front for Greed for oil.

Posted by: qqbDEyZW | July 20, 2010 10:42 AM
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