National Defense Strategy

The trauma of 9/11 had far-reaching impact on our national security apparatus as Congress and the White House scrambled to reassure the American people that our government would respond to the threat and prevent such horrors from occurring again. Thus far there have been no further acts of terrorism of similar magnitude, which suggests we must be doing something right, but that doesn't mean the nation is secure. Indeed, there are weak places in our defense that are vulnerable to future acts of terrorism.

One of the most obvious areas of concern is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created as a direct result of 9/11 in an effort to streamline and coordinate the array of federal agencies responsible for various aspects of national defense. One would have to spend many years in the nation's capital, as I have done, to appreciate the chaos that resulted from that seemingly benign initiative. Bureaucracies by their nature are inflexible and resistant to leadership. To forge dozens of unrelated agencies overnight into one coherent entity would have been beyond the powers of the most visionary leadership.

As if that weren't challenging enough, no fewer than 22 committees of Congress have some level of jurisdiction over DHS, most of it stemming from before the agencies were combined into DHS. Obviously, just as Congress acted to unify the various agencies it should have also unified Congressional oversight into two committees -- one in the Senate and one in the House -- but that did not happen.

The result is conspicuous inefficiency as many senior DHS officials are required to spend most of their time responding to Congressional inquiries or testifying before committees. As one who has been through it, I can testify that preparing testimony is time-consuming and rarely if ever productive. You work through the night to prepare your remarks only to see panel members wander in and out chatting with reporters or staff, oblivious to what you have to say.

When I helped the Pentagon work its way through the Goldwater-Nichols 1986 defense reform, we strove to keep the system as simple as possible. The Joint Chiefs forged a national defense strategy based on nuclear deterrence, control of the seas and freedom of space. We did not at that time anticipate the arrival of the digital revolution that is remaking every aspect of the way we live and work, and posing unprecedented challenges to national security.

We live in a digital world and national defense depends on our ability to master digital technology, anticipating and fending off cyber-attacks. A major concern, one of many actually, is the ability of terrorists to obtain computer access to our "consequential infrastructure," the IT systems of private companies and utilities which, if manipulated, could cause a catastrophic event harming masses of people and wreaking economic chaos. We need a coherent national strategy to synthesize a digital element into our defense plans. What we have is chaos.


Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.