Monday, August 22, 2005

ABLE DANGER: Is it fair to bring up Tailhook?

It might seem a stretch, but I think that it has some relevance to what SOCOM was doing in 2001 and why the Army shut it down without public protest. (See Jack Kelly for more.)

Tailhook started out as a scandal over the drunken behavior of some naval aviators. But it soon grew into a big political battle over military culture with a big dose of congressional posturing, anti-military press bias, and careerist behavior by senior Pentagon leadership. Although Tailhook made the Navy ground zero, both the Army and Air Force faced the same issues and PR nightmares.

The indispensable James Webb was the most prominent and thoughtful voice decrying the madness. Here is how PBS describes his Luther moment:

In April 1996, Webb delivered a powerful speech at the Naval Academy accusing the Navy's current leaders of failing to defend its hallowed traditions and unique culture for the sake of their own careers. He cited the destruction of careers in the post-Tailhook turmoil, noting in particular the cases of Admirals Jack Snyder and Stan Arthur. Webb asked: "Who expressed their outrage? Who fought this?" The Annapolis midshipmen gave him a standing ovation.

Here are two excerpts from the speech:
When the acting Secretary of the Navy, who had never spent a day in uniform, called a press conference and announced that the antics of one group of aviators at Tailhook was an indication that the Navy as a whole had cultural problems-cultural, as in ethos, as in the overall body of traits that constitutes an institution's history and traditions--how could the CNO stand next to him and fail to defend the way of life he had spent a career helping to shape?
When one of the finest candidates for Commander in Chief of the Pacific in recent times, a man who flew more than 500 combat missions in Vietnam and then in the Gulf War commanded the largest naval armada since World War II, is ordered into early retirement by the Chief of Naval Operations because one Senator asked on behalf of a constituent why Stan Arthur as Vice Chief of Naval Operations had simply approved a report upholding a decision to wash out a female officer from flight school, who expressed their outrage? Who fought this? Who condemned it

This interview with Webb goes into more detail. In it the interviewer notes that more admirals were ruined by Tailhook than by Pearl Harbor. Ponder that for just a moment.

Now, a little context:

The acting Navy secretary was a Bush '41 appointee. The Senator who ruined Adm. Arthur's career was a Republican from Minnesota.

In the 1990s, neither party was a reliable defender of the military services. Nor, as Webb makes clear, was the senior leadership willing to fight against the politicians and media when they ginned up a scandal in the post-Anita Hill world.

Any reasonably astute officer knew that a PR disaster is a career-ender-EVEN IF THE PR SCANDAL IS LARGELY CONTRIVED. The underlying facts mattered less than what "60 Minutes" put on the screen. Neither Republicans nor Democrats were willing standup to the media juggernaut to ensure a fair hearing so the facts can come out.

That is the sort of environment that might make officers just a tad risk-averse.

Now add a counter-terrorist operation down in Florida that is really pushing the envelope. New methodologies, new technology, few controls on who gets analyzed. So far it is showing promise, but the lawyers are worried that it invades the privacy of United States citizens.

Pretend that you are one of the officers in charge or involved. Your program has promise but it has not caught any terrorists or prevented any attacks. The lawyers think you should shut it down. They are "concerned" that word will get out and ignite a media firestorm over civil liberties, high-tech invasions of privacy, and racial profiling. You suspect that they are right and you also are not confident that one of the lawyers will not leak the details to some obliging reporter.

If the story is leaked, who can you depend on? The brass? Congress? George H. W. Bush's son?

Maybe we are barking up the wrong tree on Gorelick. "The Wall" may have had some impact on the men in charge of ABLE DANGER. OTOH, the post-Tailhook behavior of Republicans and Democrats might be more important.

I do not expect that this idea is going to go anywhere in the blogosphere. If it is correct, the blame is bi-partisan. Trent Lott is as culpable as Gorelick or Hilliary. Bi-partisan outrage is popular only when it can be directed at social conservatives.

UPDATE: If you have not read it, make sure you read Webb's book-- Born Fighting. Check out the sidebar to your left.

UPDATE 2: Welcome Instapundit and Michelle Malkin readers. Take a look around, stay a while. Consider adding this blog to your RSS reader. I have handy buttons on left for Bloglines and My Yahoo. And thanks for stopping by.

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