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The FBI's "O" ring problem
By Gary Aldrich
In 1986, while having lunch with a former FBI agent and good friend who had gone on to work in NASA's Inspector General's office, he and I watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up into millions of pieces. We stared opened-mouthed as the dying crew and flaming debris spiraled down from the sky.
NASA's reputation disintegrated following the Challenger explosion as revelations from whistle blowers confirmed the worst fears: A simple rubber "O" ring failure that caused the Challenger "accident" could have been prevented if only certain NASA careerists had not been so paralyzed by their long-standing bureaucratic attitudes.
A forced outside examination of NASA's "accident" resulted in a sweeping management shake up. Since then, NASA has not experienced another accident or loss of life. A sense of optimism, confidence and excellence has been restored to NASA's mission. The public once again trusts the agency to do the right thing.
There are similarities between the "old" NASA and today's FBI, but why hasn't the FBI been able to fix its own "O" ring problems?
Both agencies have critical missions that remain close to the hearts of Americans. NASA and the FBI, by way of their actions or inaction, have the power over life and death. Rocket science is very dangerous, without question. If it were not for the constant vigilance of every NASA employee, more lives would surely be lost in our quest to explore the heavens.
Likewise, the FBI conducts high-risk investigations, at times requiring agents to use, and dodge lethal firepower.
Most would agree that both agencies' missions capture the public's imagination due to the life-altering and life-threatening context of their work. Movies, books, and television have explored and capitalized on the fascination we have for the dangers that NASA and the FBI face daily.
The limited vacancies that occur in each agency are highly sought after, and a large percentage of employees stay until retirement age. Careers in aerospace and law enforcement, no doubt, require mature, intelligent and educated employees who can pass through exhaustive background investigations enabling access to top secret material.
The American people have a right to expect that anyone hired by NASA or the FBI must command respect, and act in the best interests of the nation, as they seek to achieve their mission. After all, they are public employees, are well paid, and receive tremendous benefits, like generous retirement and healthcare packages that most citizens can only dream of.
Americans need their heroes, and they are used to finding them in the cockpits of the space shuttles and at the firing ranges and in the "good news" headlines about the great work of the FBI. Americans don't want bad news and they're willing to pay plenty of hard-earned tax dollars to get what they want.
NASA and the FBI favor former military experience because there is a tremendous need for discipline and a no-nonsense approach to the agencies mission objectives. "Following orders" is essential. Predictably, mavericks or boat-rockers are deemed to be troublesome, worthy of shunning by management and other employees. Most FBI and NASA personnel are a patriotic lot as well, possessing a team spirit that helps them achieve their missions.
There is also a sense of a "special calling." For example, quite a few of the FBI agents I worked with had studied for the ministry, or considered other vocations that required special commitments beyond the usual employment experience. My friends in NASA have confirmed that they see the same kind of dedication there. Long hours, high risk, high stress, and total focused dedication; oftentimes at the expense of family relationships, are qualities that can be found in both agencies.
With such striking similarities, if NASA cleaned up their act, why can't the FBI? Why does the FBI seem to go from one disaster to another, with no significant improvement in policy or procedure? Why doesn't the public, the press, the U. S. Congress or the White House demand an equal standard?
After years of damage to the FBI's reputation, "outsiders" are finally acknowledging the missteps, and recognize them as a pattern, not just another bureaucratic snafu. Why, exactly, was NASA required to undergo a wrenching and embarrassing public examination, whereas the FBI seemingly escapes necessary reforms?
The answer is complex, and cannot be found in a single essay, but the obvious problem looms large. There is a significant management problem at FBI Headquarters. The Attorney General, John Ashcroft, is correct to assume that one way to fix the management problem is through the use of outside industry management experts who can clearly see what too many myopic middle and upper-level FBI managers choose to ignore.
The real question is whether the White House and the Attorney General will pay attention once the painful diagnosis is published. The FBI will be given time to respond to the findings and the suggested solutions. It is then that the real test begins. Will middle and high level FBI managers finally agree that significant problems exist and major changes are needed?
Herein lies the difference between NASA and the FBI: whereas the NASA managers seemed embarrassed and frightened by their own incompetence and selfish devotion to careerism, there has been no sign that FBI managers are ready to concede anything, other than the existence of some Left or Right wing conspiracy with media accomplices, dedicated to dragging the FBI down.
Inside the FBI, no criticism is considered fair, no matter how honest, no matter how well intentioned.
The attitude that I describe here is the posture of the beleaguered, the defensiveness of the cornered. For the FBI's own good, and the good of the nation, there needs to be radical reform at the FBI, whether bureaucratic careerists at the agency like it or not! However, their willingness to embrace or oppose change is irrelevant. These men and women who carry guns and can seize liberty and property must possess the attitudes of 747 pilots not the mentality of the chased and trapped.
How does the FBI rate less attention or warrant less care than NASA who continues to prosper after outside attention was rendered and a major shake-up occurred?
American citizens care deeply about the FBI and NASA. We, as a nation, must demand the strictest adherence to quality and performance standards. We should expect nothing less from the men and women who give us dreams to dream and carefree streets in which to roam.
Gary Aldrich is the president and founder of the Patrick Henry Center, nonprofit, non-partisan educational and charitable foundation. He is also the author of the bestseller, Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House.
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