Shadow Government

Off with her head? I’d rather know what’s on Napolitano’s mind first

The almost-successful terrorist attack on Christmas day has led some to demand that heads roll in the Homeland Security Department, beginning with the top head, Janet Napolitano.   To be sure, Napolitano wins the award for dumbest spin of the year when she claimed that “the system worked.” But I think it is premature to ...

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The almost-successful terrorist attack on Christmas day has led some to demand that heads roll in the Homeland Security Department, beginning with the top head, Janet Napolitano.  

To be sure, Napolitano wins the award for dumbest spin of the year when she claimed that “the system worked.” But I think it is premature to fire Napolitano, and not simply because she has changed her spin.

It is premature because it takes time to figure out exactly what went wrong and thus who should be held accountable and in what fashion. The naval standard of accountability — the ship ran aground so the commander is automatically relieved — might result in her immediate dismissal. But for bureaucracies devoted to strategy against a cunning adversary, such a standard can lead to a zero-defect mentality.

Rather, the incident calls for a thorough congressional investigation – one that asks the tough questions and obliges members of the administration, including Napolitano, to answer those tough questions. There are all sorts of questions about who knew what, when, and what they did about it.  But I am most interested in what the investigation will reveal about the bureaucratic mindset, and here I am not talking about a zero-defect mentality but a potentially more pernicious mindset. One of the more important revelations of the 9/11 Commission investigation was the pervasiveness of what Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the “pre-9/11 mindset.” The mindset led the Clinton administration to view al Qaeda as merely a law-enforcement problem and, as a consequence, to limit themselves on what they might do to counter the threat. The Obama administration has likewise made a big point of seeking to reinstate the law enforcement mindset throughout the counterterrorism enterprise. Congressional investigators should pursue the leads to determine whether this mindset has taken hold and led to the security lapses that almost resulted in the decade ending with another devastating terrorist strike on American soil.

Bottom line: the “law enforcement mindset” may not be appropriate for fighting terrorists but it is appropriate for overseeing the national security bureaucracy. It may well be that there were lapses of judgment and oversight that rise to firing offenses. But let’s investigate the alleged crime before we execute the sentence.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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