Friday, July 3, 2009

Book Review: Your Government Failed You

Title: Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters
Author: Richard A. Clarke
Rating: *****
Tags: non-fiction, terrorism, national security, military, cybersecurity, energy, civil service

Excellent, wide-ranging view of U.S. national security from someone who spent thirty years in government on these issues, working with the military, intelligence agencies, and the other departments working on national security topics. He takes a snapshot of the state of national security as of the early part of 2008, explains how we got to where we are, and most importantly, makes recommendations on how to improve it all, recommendations informed by his experience and the experience of other professionals.

I find the title rather unfortunate, as it sounds sensationalist and partisan, and hides the professionalism behind the book. Clarke served under both Democratic and Republican administrations. He criticized the Bush administration the most, but one believes he would have criticized them as harshly if they had been Democrats. It was their partisanship and their incompetence that he disliked. One interesting statistic he mentions, speaking of partisanship, is this one: "The number of political appointees declined by 17 percent in the 1990s but is now up by 33 percent in the last seven years' [that is, under the Bush administration]. (p. 340). Clarke believes that the government should have both civil servants and political appointees, but thinks that there should be far fewer partisan appointments.

Early in the book, Clarke talks about the military's role in national security. He has the highest respect for those dedicated individuals who serve in the military. What he does is explain how, in reaction to Viet Nam, the military changed radically in hopes of avoiding another poorly planned, unlikely-to-be-winnable and unpopular war. They believed that without a draft, large wars would be impossible without calling up Reserve units and that that would be too unpopular to be considered unless we were a dire situation like World War II. As we now know, they failed to discourage the Iraq war, in part because those willing to speak up against it were gotten rid of.

Next Clarke goes into the nation's intelligence services. They include data intelligence gathering, at which the U.S. excels with its technology, analysis of the data, and human spying. He says the U.S. is very bad at spying, in part because spying effectively can require illegal and unethical actions. He mentions British spies infiltrating the IRA who killed British citizens in order to be accepted into the group they were penetrating. He goes in depth into the problems of intelligence gathering. There may be vast amounts of data, but poor analysis. He mentions in depth the CIA's irresponsibility in not sharing that two known Al Quaeda operatives were in the U.S.

Clarke discusses energy, and says that it is an impossible goal to be energy independent, that no one is.

The chapter on cybersecurity is fascinating. He was involved in the issue once the government became aware of it in the late 1990s, and traveled extensively talking to hundreds of people to educate himself on the topic. He believes that better security systems exist, but that the will to pay for them isn't there, though that may be changing as the costs of NOT having better security continues to increase.

As indicated above, Clarke spends a good bit of time discussing staffing issues, from whether private contractors should be doing national security work to how to keep the experienced and imaginative people needed.

He sums up the book quite well in the following paragraph:

"As you will have noted throughout this book, I have my views on what a good government should be doing on specific and important national security issues in the near term. Two factors shape how I believe we should approach those issues. First, we need to approach national security issues at home and abroad within the context of our values. When we detach ourselves to any degree from the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights, we soon find ourselves adrift without a compass, and engaging in counterproductive activities. Second, the threat of violent Islamist extremists is significant, and we can do a much better job of countering it, but it is not an existential threat to the United States and we will do a much better job of addressing it if we put it into context and do not artificially inflate the threat". (p. 356)

Throughout the book he does make recommendations on bettering the national security apparatus, and I hope the Obama administration is taking detailed notes. The biggest lack in the book is not having a bibliography. There is a good notes section and an index, but he mentions several notable books and having a bibliography would have made things easier. As it was, I ordered about four of the books he mentioned for my Library's collection.

Excellent work, incredibly informative on the one government activity that is the most important to its citizens.

Publication Ecco (2008), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 416 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 0061474622 / 9780061474620

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