Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Although it is difficult for me to say, and even more difficult for me to believe, I have spent more than 40 years in close contact with bureaucracies. That includes federal, state, and local bureaucracies, business organizations, and private groups. They range from the highest levels of the Department of Defense to the lowest level of neighborhood watch; from military planning organizations to university faculty committees; from national level think tanks to committees at a local church. I have discovered one absolute Iron Law of Bureaucracy: bureaucracies exist to serve themselves first.

Now that is not to say that all bureaucracies are bad, or that people in bureaucracies are not to be trusted. I've met many members of bureaucracies who spend most of their lives seeking to serve the law, the Constitution, their fellow citizens, and their fellow human beings. Mother Teresa worked in, and was supported by, a bureaucracy. 

But even members of a bureaucracy with the best of intentions operate within a fundamental logic which says: resources are finite; requirements are not; the more resources a bureaucracy has the more good it can do. As a result, bureaucratic leaders are in a constant hunt for money, people, office space and missions – always looking to justify retaining the resources they have, and expanding those resources when possible. In my 40 years of bureaucracy watching, I remember exactly one organization that reduced staff, reduced wages, cut expenses and returned unused money on its own. Its director was preparing to leave.  But for the most part, suicide is not in the bureaucratic DNA.

 In times of austerity, the hunt intensifies. For organizations whose contribution may not be evident on a day-to-day basis, retooling their arguments about mission and contribution can become a matter of organizational life and death. You can see it right now in the US Navy, which is pressing hard for a national strategic “Pivot to Asia,” which would justify keeping the resources they have, and even taking resources from the other services, to pacify that hotbed of instability, the Pacific Ocean. You can see it in the US Army, which is rushing to demonstrate its utility by aligning each of its major units with a continent, as though a brigade with a special understanding of Algeria would be able to transfer that understanding to Nigeria or South Africa.  And you can even see it with the current military crown jewels – our Special Operations Command – as they begin to form a unit for transferring the counterterrorism knowledge and procedures they developed in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Mexican military and police battling cartel violence south of our border.

According to reports from several usually reliable sources ( , and others), an informal program of counterterrorism exchanges between US Special Ops, and Mexican military/law enforcement personnel is being transformed into a formal program  of training and advice (if the Mexicans will take it.)

Now before we go further, as a veteran with 34 years in uniform, let me express my admiration of, and gratitude toward, the men and women of the US Special Operations Command. While lots of organizations deserve credit for their decade long contribution to keeping us safe here at home, SOCOM deserves special applause for their special contribution under especially trying circumstances.

But that said, our record of providing military training to agents of other countries in order to use them for our purposes has not been good in recent years. 

·         In Iraq, some of the people we trained are now using their skills to oppress ethnic and religious rivals.

·         In Afghanistan, our training programs have provided the vehicle to get our enemies close enough for “green-on-blue” (Afghan-on-US) killings. In fact, the police and military we trained are so thoroughly penetrated that we have begun new background checks on tens of thousands of people already in our pay. 

·         In Mali, troops and officers we trained didn’t just quit the battlefield – they staged a coup against the government we supported and took their US issued weapons with them when they changed sides. It appears that weapons and training we provided are coming back to bite us in the . . .  hip pocket.

·         Indeed, the most professional drug cartel in Mexico (the Zetas) was created by Mexican special ops solders we trained in the US and elsewhere, who then found they could make much more money free-lancing than working for the government.

            And by the way, according to one of the articles (and my own limited experience), the Mexican government, fully aware of how penetrated their institutions are at every level from their President’s office to the local police, is being cautious about embracing this Special Ops training program.

So why do it?

Well one answer is bureaucratic inertia. (And remember, “bureaucratic” is not always a bad word. Being “bureaucratic” is what we are paying our government employees to do.) In 2008 the Bush Administration signed the Merida Initiative, easing the flow of US military training and equipment to Mexican anti-drug efforts. This new effort could be seen as an expansion of a program that has so far provided less than both sides had hoped.

Another answer is bureaucratic frustration. To their credit, many in the military see the war on drugs as one that might be won – at least in the areas of production and distribution. They are frustrated by world-weary partners on both sides of the border who are satisfied with the status-quo. Our special ops in particular have honed an interagency process that has driven a skilled and determined enemy from pillar to post around the world. And they want to use it against a new enemy who has frustrated less sophisticated campaigns.

Finally there is the motive of bureaucratic expansion – which brings us back to the opening paragraphs of this essay, and the idea that what bureaucracies do best is find new needs for their services  . . .  and new reasons for additional resources. The Washington Post article sees this new initiative as another in a series of efforts to migrate special operators from their decade of service in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to new missions, even as the rest of the military fights post-war contraction and multi-billion-dollar budget cuts.”

And then the article adds: “The new headquarters will also coordinate special operations troops when needed for domestic roles like rescuing survivors after a natural disaster, or helping the U.S. Coast Guard strike ships carrying suspect cargo just outside U.S. territorial waters . . ..”

Special Operations teaching interagency targeting to Mexican law enforcement.  And “domestic roles” inside the US.  Oh. 
You know guys . . . as much as I admire you . . . and I really do . . . I’d just as soon not. We already have dozens of law enforcement agencies trying to sort out who we can trust without your creating a centralized targeting system where who knows who will have access.  And we already have hundreds of thousands of first responders at the federal, state, and local level, backed up by the entire conventional forces of the Department of Defense for response to disasters. I am not convinced that we need your specialized equipment diverted to domestic missions. Or your specialized skill set. There are lots of bad guys who need the full attention of our special operations forces overseas. Let’s keep the bureaucracy focused there, shall we?

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