[Paleopsych] NYT: The Beast That Feeds on Boxes: Bureaucracy
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Week in Review > The Beast That Feeds on Boxes: Bureaucracy
April 10, 2005
By SCOTT SHANE
IN the long and dispiriting history of American intelligence failure,
from Pearl Harbor to the 2001 attacks to Iraqi weapons, one chronic
culprit is that "giant power wielded by pygmies," as Balzac put it:
Critical discoveries by code breakers, F.B.I. agents and the C.I.A.
were lost on the way up the long ladder that separates rank-and-file
spies from top decision makers.
But who has ever resisted the impulse to add rungs to the ladder,
always with the sturdiest intentions?
"I've been studying bureaucracy for 40 years," said James Q. Wilson, a
professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, "and I can't
remember a single commission that proposed cutting back."
Little surprise, then, that after two independent commissions and
multiple Congressional committees studied the shortcomings of the 15
intelligence agencies, they proposed more bureaucracy.
Much, much more bureaucracy.
This paradoxical result worries Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals
court judge and the author of a coming book on intelligence reform.
"Every time you add a layer of bureaucracy, you delay the movement of
information up the chain to the policy maker," Judge Posner said. "And
you dilute the information, because at each step some details are
Yet adding layers appears to be in the DNA of bureaucracy; it is what
bureaucracy does, according to Paul C. Light, who has spent years
studying the phenomenon he calls the "thickening" of government.
Through Republican and Democratic administrations, in response to any
kind of crisis or failure, in every field from education to national
security, and often in the face of stark evidence that it will be
counterproductive, the federal government has grown layers, said Dr.
Light, a professor of public service at New York University and senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The layering can scramble communication and accountability, he said,
and it lies at the heart of many government failures. In the Columbia
disaster, NASA engineers' worries never reached top officials.
Commanders in Iraq have said that word of abuses at Abu Ghraib did not
One of the first great students of bureaucracy, the early-20th-century
German sociologist Max Weber, saw a lot to like in this form of
organization, particularly as a replacement for clan-based or
patronage systems. Bureaucracies were made up of people with
expertise, operating under consistent rules and keeping precise
records. But Weber may not have imagined the scale of bureaucracy at
the top of a 21st-century superpower, or its relentless growth.
In 1960, according to Dr. Light's study of federal phone directories,
there were 17 different executive titles in the 15 cabinet departments
he tracks. By 2004, that had ballooned to 64 titles, as new positions
were wedged between existing jobs, creating such choice appellations
as "chief of staff to the associate deputy assistant secretary" and
"principal deputy deputy assistant secretary" (the repetition is not a
High-level career posts have proliferated as fast as political
appointments. "It's a stalactite-stalagmite problem," Dr. Light said.
"The politicals drip down, and the career people drip up."
Sometimes growth is a matter of prestige. "Today, you're no one in
this town if you don't have a chief of staff, and not much of a chief
of staff if you don't have a deputy chief of staff," Dr. Light said.
Sometimes pay freezes lead to the manufacture of new titles to allow
bosses to give deserving subordinates raises.
But the real driver for layering is the effort to reform, Dr. Light
said, as leaders frustrated by failing bureaucracies add layers to
impose discipline on those below. The response to the 9/11 attacks is
a clear example. The government first created the Department of
Homeland Security, building a florid new superstructure above 22
agencies employing 180,000 people. Now comes the intelligence
agencies' turn. Atop the layers of the Central Intelligence Agency and
its 14 siblings, Congress followed the advice of the 9/11 commission
and decided to place a new director of national intelligence, assisted
by a staff of more than 500. President Bush's nominee for the post,
John D. Negroponte, is set for a Senate confirmation hearing this
Then the presidential commission on Iraqi weapons intelligence weighed
in on March 31 with a list of proposed additions: the C.I.A.'s
directorate of operations would be swallowed up by a new human
intelligence directorate; the F.B.I.'s security operations would be
consolidated into a National Security Service; "mission managers"
under a deputy director of national intelligence for integrated
intelligence strategies would coordinate reporting on a single target.
And so on, for 74 recommendations.
Each comes with a common-sense rationale. But nearly all would add
bulk to the bureaucracy, potentially tangling lines of authority and
communication for intelligence, with its dependence on speed and
precision, say experts on spying and government.
"It's going to slow down decision-making and make things even more
confusing," said Loch K. Johnson, a professor of political science at
the University of Georgia who was on the staffs of Congressional
intelligence reform panels in the 1970's and the 1990's.
The hazards of the bureaucratic imperative were not lost on the latest
intelligence commission, led by Laurence H. Silberman, a senior
federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, the former Virginia senator and
"We were worried about it, and we are worried about it," the judge
said in an interview. The report frets repeatedly about the danger of
bureaucracy and says specifically, "We have tried to eschew the
'boxology' that often dominates discussions of government reform."
But in the end, the commission could not stop itself. On its
organizational chart for Mr. Negroponte's operation, there are 34
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