Preventing The Next Attack

In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush’s approval ratings shot up and nobody lost their jobs. In fact, many who were senior officials became more powerful as they were granted new rights.

Here in Israel, the opposite is true. 86% view the attack as a failure of the country’s leadership. 75% believe the government bears the bulk of the responsibility for not being prepared. 56% believe Benjamin Netanyahu must resign at the end of the war and 52% believe Yoav Gallant, the Defense Minister, must do the same. The nation’s military and political leadership are already facing a reckoning. (the predictable political repercussions are one reason why conspiracy theories that this leadership allowed the attacks to happen are so weak).

I expect those approval ratings will fall as more is learned about the attacks.

A friend challenged me to explain the causes of these diametrically different responses.

My first inclination was to point out the scale of the countries. The President of the United States and the senior leadership of the CIA, FBI etc… are very far removed from the boots on the ground. The U.S. also has a population is 33 times larger than that of Israel. Finally, the U.S. manages a vast global network of relationships with what are effectively client states. Thus, the President both must be, and is, far removed from the vast majority of issues.

In the United States, ‘the buck stops here’ can only be an unrealistic campaign slogan.

Israel isn’t like that. We don’t have client states and our population is tiny. While issues might be complex, they aren’t vast. Thus, the Prime Minister is expected to be reasonably aware of details which would never cross a President’s desk.

In Israel, it is reasonable to assign responsibility to those at the top.

While the above might be true, I realized that it only hints at the true distinction between the countries. Perhaps due to the scale of the bureaucracy, the aftermath of 9/11 saw blame attached to organizational structures and procedures – not people. After all, in the U.S. the people are just tiny cogs in a vast machine that failed to put the pieces together. The U.S. has history’s largest bureaucracy, behind only China (and far exceeding the USSR). It is a country governed by procedure. Any effective bureaucracy learns to conduct continuous improvement exercises that require the cooperation of those involved. Unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, the investigations must assume that the procedure – and not the people – were at fault.

That is exactly what occurred after 9/11.

In Israel, bureaucracy is far less structured. Just last night, we did laundry for soldiers. A procedure for distributing laundry from the front lines to private people’s homes all throughout the country didn’t exist on Sunday – but by Wednesday it was firmly in place. But Thursday, soldiers had fresh clothes.

No continuous improvement exercise could have delivered such rapid and effective change. It required highly autonomous individual decision-making and networking.

Because Israel is much less structured, prevention of things like the terror attacks on Simchat Torah are not seen as due to process. Yes, there may have been a process failure; I don’t know the intelligence processes within the security establishment. But there was certainly a personal failure. People who were given the autonomy to prevent such situations failed to see what was coming. There is no process they can blame.

There are those who argue that the solution to gaps like those faced on Simchat Torah is more developed processes. The Defense Establishment even has key audit tools in place. In 2018, General (res.) Yitzchak Brik produced an ombudsman report that “points to a plethora of shortcomings in the military’s operational capabilities, casts doubt on its readiness for a conflict in the south and highlights the subpar standards in the quality among senior military staff…. ‘There is a lack of regular military monitoring of military processes, disciplinary problems and a failure to fulfil orders.’”

This sort of auditing is key to effective processes. However, his was hardly the first or the last report to lambast the IDF for what are essentially bureaucratic issues. Israel has a shortage of excellent administrators and so the likelihood of effective follow-through on continuous improvement reports focused on procedural issues (as opposed to technical issues) is very low indeed.

Fundamentally, Israel’s lacks the administrative skill to turn documented process into quality outcomes. This is one reason the upcoming war is likely to be high on improvisation and low on professional execution. This lack of procedure, and training, can create a serious drop in baseline capability – but can actually raise improvisational capability.

However, even if Israel had superior processes, it is highly likely they would have missed this attack. After all, 9/11 was an innovative terror attack carried out despite security agencies working with highly developed processes. In the face of innovation by those opposed to you, process isn’t always the answer. After all, even the best process-based aerospace engineering can’t handle a change in gravity.

Given the weaknesses of both American and Israeli approaches to management in the face of sudden change, how can another innovation in terror – an innovation comparable to that of 9/11 or the Simchat Torah Massacre – be prevented?

One approach is to make the cost of such actions so high that nobody would consider conducting them in the future. It is possible that the War in Gaza will deliver this result, but I have doubts. Since the time of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, Arab culture has mastered the art of redefining abject defeat as victory. Yes, a complete destruction of Hamas will give Israel’s enemies pause – but their ability to redefine reality is legendary.

There is an alternative approach that starts with identifying these sorts of failure as what they are: failures of imagination. They are failures to see the possibilities of what could be. All too often, experts live within the boxes of the world they know while the administrators live within the reality created by their staffs. Unless they get intelligence that forces them to rebuild their assumptions, they tend to be trapped within them.

Neither is a master of imagination and masters of imagination are what is needed in the face of enemy innovation.

Consider: In 1994, Tom Clancy released a Debt of Honor. It describes a pilot, driven mad by the death of his son and brother, flying a 747 into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress. In a way, Tom Clancy saw the possibility of a 9/11. But, of course, nobody really noticed.

His book, if cast around realistic characters and countries, could have served a valuable national security purpose. Given that, why not deploy masters of imagination to close the gaps in both people and process-based cultures? There job would not be to analyze what is happening , but to anticipate what could happen – given the characters and realities involved. Give them access to confidential information and subject matter experts and fill them in on the bios and characters of the people involved in all aspects of a conflict. Then have them create realistic scenarios – stories – about what could occur. Unlike position papers, these scenarios would be character-driven. After all, for their analysis to be valuable, the characters would have to act realistically – even in the eyes of those who study them professionally.

In retrospect hang gliders, the knock out of communications towers, a sudden rushing onslaught and low-tech communications all seem obvious. The rushing onslaughts had been tried before, on the Gaza border itself. Low-tech communications had been used by the Taliban, ISIS, and pro-Iran militias to defy US surveillance. And it seems as if communications hits and hang gliders have been seen in every James Bond and Mission Impossible movie ever released.

Despite this, those responsible couldn’t see it until they couldn’t unsee it. We needed to put ourselves in the shoes of Hamas’ senior leadership and asking how they could break out of the box Israel had put them in.

While these scenario developers would never be as well-informed as the experts, such an approach could inspire administrators to plug as yet undiscovered holes while revealing new possibilities to even the most experienced and flexible experts. They could help deal with what Donald Rumsfeld called unknown unknowns.

Americans live by procedure and Israelis by the strength of highly autonomous individual decision-making and relationship building.

Both, I believe, could be strengthened by those whose gift is that of a well-tuned imagination.

Additional Gaza 2023 coverage

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