Top Bush Pentagon Appointee Rejects Key McCain Counter-Terrorism Initiative

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In a statement reminiscent of the “first art critic” scene in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, the civilian head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command Michael Vickers today soundly rejected a core idea put forth by John McCain for meeting the threats posed by global terrorist groups.

John McCain has called for the creation of a new espionage agency patterned on the Office of Strategic Services, a World War II-era agency that conducted operations behind enemy lines.

Speaking at an event (pdf) at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Assistant Secretary of Defense Vickers, one of the most important figures in the Bush administration’s efforts to address global terrorism, criticized McCain’s proposal, essentially saying it would be a big waste of time while “we’re at war.” Vickers stated his view clearly: “We have the institutions we need.”


McCain has advocated for his new OSS in speeches, and in his Foreign Affairs essay last year. He insists such a new agency “could take risks that our bureaucracies today are afraid to take.”

A cadre of such undercover operatives would allow us to gain the intelligence on terrorist activities that we don’t get today from our high-tech surveillance systems and from a CIA clandestine service that works almost entirely out of our embassies abroad.

McCain national security advisor Randy Scheunemann reiterated McCain’s support of the idea, telling the Washington Times that “while there may be some that think the status quo is just fine, John McCain has seen past failures of the intelligence community firsthand.”

But just as McCain’s half-baked League of Democracies idea is criticized by democracy promotion experts, intelligence and counter-terrorism experts have rejected McCain’s OSS idea as a structural solution. Robert Grenier, a former CIA official, criticized the idea, saying “as so many have before him, Senator McCain is trying to use a structural fix to solve what is fundamentally a leadership problem… To suggest that we could eliminate that by creating a new organization to pull all those elements together is completely unrealistic and in the short term would be enormously destructive.”

This flat-out rejection of a core McCain idea by a top defense and counter-terrorism official in the Bush administration exposes the emptiness of McCain’s national security proposals, something that frankly hasn’t gotten enough scrutiny from the media. John McCain might bluster that he would “follow Bin Laden to the gates of hell,” but his main idea on terrorism is simply to move some bureaucratic boxes around unnecessarily.

Transcript below:

QUESTION: You mentioned briefly your criticisms about the idea of a new style OSS being developed. I thought maybe you could offer a little bit more insight as to why you don’t think that would necessarily be the best model for going forward and then looking at the next administration, what types of large initiatives do you think they need to dedicate more resources to on the intelligence front?

MR. VICKERS: (Chuckles.) Okay, well, I’ll answer the first question. I don’t think I want to tackle the next one, but the reason I think another OSS isn’t the right model is if I understand it correctly, it means creating something out of nothing. We’ve got something. You know, it’s had greater successes and lesser successes, but it had a lot more successes than people think and it’s doing critically important work around the world today. And if it also means putting that organization inside the Department of Defense, as the OSS was, I’m not sure that’s the right approach, and we’re at war. Not only do I think we’re doing a lot better than people think in some of these areas, but the idea that the first thing I would want to do in the middle of a war right now and with some of the threats you’ve described, to come in and say let me figure out how I can play musical chairs here and reinvent new institutions doesn’t strike me as the wisest approach.

So I’m not sold on the specifics. I don’t think we need to — for instance some have suggested combining our Special Operations Forces in the same organization with the Central Intelligence Agency. If that’s what they mean by OSS, you know I’ve seen that variant. We don’t need to do that. We get the — you know, again, we might need more integration than we have today in some areas. We can achieve that.

So I guess I’m just generally leery of organizational solutions to problems. I’m much more a believer that the people you have in certain positions — basically, there’s two ideas you can do in organization. You can make it very difficult to wield power or you can make it easier to wield power, right? Our founding fathers said we want to make it difficult for you. As we became a great power, we created institutions in World War II and then following that, you know, National Security Act of 1947, to make power more easy to wield.

That doesn’t mean that every occupant of both positions or the organization performs at optimum all the time. What it means is you have organizational capacity — if the time is matched and the person is matched — to get it done. I think that’s — I think we have the institutions we need, I think we need to focus more on getting the right people in them and making sure those organizations are resourced and have the authorities and capabilities they need, then rejiggering things.

Some organizational reforms, I think, were necessary. I think the Department of Homeland Security, for example, was something where consolidation — again, if you look at our organizational history as a government after World War II, it took time to build the Department of Defense to what it looks like today. It just didn’t happen in a year or so, and it will be true for any other organization. But that consolidation was very important, and it may take a decade or more to really get it working the way it should, but I guess I’m really skeptical of remaking the CIA or remaking this or that — again, just a personal view, but an insider one.