Terrorism & Bush I: Assessing the Vice President’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism

Below is a paper I presented over the weekend at the ISAC/ISSS 2010 Conference in lovely Providence, RI. It was, like my paper on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission an interesting chance to see what happens when the vice president is given a line assignment – with support from the President.

FYI – it is a very rough draft!

Terrorism & Bush I:
Assessing the Vice President’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism

Aaron Mannes
PhD Student – University of Maryland School of Public Policy
Researcher – Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics

In an article in the Spring 2005 issue of International Security, Amy Zegart examines the failures of the intelligence community to adapt to better take on terrorism. Her analysis focuses on the period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. However, the first efforts to adapt the intelligence community to the counter-terror mission occurred before the end of the Cold War in the form of a task force headed by then Vice President George H. W. Bush. This paper is a preliminary exploration of whether or not Zegart’s findings apply to this earlier attempt at reform and in the process of doing so will examine whether or not there is a unique role played by vice presidents in policy formation and implementation.

Zegart’s Thesis
In her article Prof. Zegart argues that despite shifting resources and regular announcements by policy-makers that counter-terrorism was a priority throughout the 1990s, the intelligence community failed to adapt to this mission. She identifies three reasons for this failure: the nature of the bureaucracies, rational self-interest of politicians, and the fragmentation of power in the American political system.

Zegart identifies numerous cases of politicians citing terrorism, particularly attacks on U.S. soil, as a major concern. This includes six bi-partisan blue-ribbon commissions, three major unclassified governmental initiatives, and three think tank task forces. The reports included 340 recommendations to improve U.S. intelligence, but according to Zegart 268 of these recommendations resulted in no action at all and only 35 were successfully implemented.

Zegart then argues, with a particular emphasis on the CIA, how these three factors combined to stymie reform efforts. Government agencies are intended to be reliable and fair, leading to an emphasis on standard operating procedures rather than nimble adaptation. Private sector organizations also have difficulty adapting, but they can go out of business whereas government agencies do so rarely. When agencies do change, it is usually due to pressure from politicians. However, politicians have limited time and need to satisfy their constituencies. Reforming national security apparatus is rarely a vote getter. Presidents and legislators thus do not have strong incentives to delve into the nuts and bolts of a national security bureaucracy in a manner that will contribute to real reform – such as modifying the personnel system. The separation of powers in the American political system also stymies reform. New agencies and major reforms require buy-in from and bargaining between multiple actors within the executive and legislative branches, leading to suboptimal agency design. Even when there are incentives for change, the largest changes require congressional action – from both houses, which is always difficult to achieve and gives an enormous advantage to maintaining the status quo.

Reagan Administration & Terrorism
Zegart’s analysis begins with the end of the Cold War, but terrorism had been a growing concern for decades beforehand. The Reagan administration was particularly bedeviled by international terrorism, facing a series of (new at the time) suicide bombings in Lebanon in the early 1980s as well as a hostage crisis, also in Lebanon, that triggered a major political scandal. In addition there were a series of high-profile terrorist events including the 1985 TWA hijacking in which a U.S. Navy diver was tortured and shot and his body was dumped on the tarmac at Beirut Airport and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in which an elderly wheel-chair bound American was shot and thrown overboard.

The Reagan administration was embroiled in policy disputes about how to handle terrorism. First, there was a debate within the administration about the source of terrorism. Many of President Reagan’s foreign policy advisors saw terrorism in the context of the Cold War and sponsored by the Soviet Union. Other figures in the administration, as well as career foreign policy officials, saw terrorism as a minor issue and not related to US-Soviet relations, which was the primary foreign policy concern. There was also the complex question of how best to address terrorism. President Reagan’s public rhetoric took an uncompromising stance against terrorism, including a strong statement condemning terrorism in his inaugural address. The recent Iran hostage crisis had elevated the issue of terrorism to the political forefront. Some Reagan advisors took the rhetoric to imply that the appropriate response to terrorism should be American military retaliation or extensive covert operations campaigns. Other figures took more cautious approaches.

The Reagan Administration also had general difficulties coordinating its foreign policy. President Reagan did not like to settle disputes between his strong-willed advisors and cabinet members. A poorly functioning National Security Council exacerbated these problems.

To rectify these ongoing problems, a number of administration officials proposed a blue ribbon commission to study the issue the issue. Ultimately, the Task Force on Combating Terrorism was given a broad mandate “to examine how the country identified, managed, and averted these threats.” The Vice President George H. W. Bush chaired the Task Force.

Enter the Vice President
For the vast majority of the history of the United States vice presidents have played, at best, a minor policy role. This began to change after World War II, particularly with Vice President Nixon who played an active role on the National Security Council and served as a leading administration spokesman domestically and internationally. In the 1970s the Office of the Vice President acquired a substantial increase in funding and personnel. But, additional resources did not translate into an expanded policy role for Vice President Agnew, who was despised by President Nixon. However, the combined resignations of Nixon and Agnew created the conditions for the Carter Presidency and a sea change in the Vice Presidency.

As an outsider with minimal experience with Washington, Carter was not beholden to traditional views on the role of the Vice President and recognized the need for an experienced politician who could balance his areas of inexperience. Carter ultimately selected Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and gave him a broad portfolio. Mondale became one of Carter’s closest advisors, with a White House office, access to all White House documents or meetings, and regular private meetings with the President. As an advisor, the vice president was considered to be free from institutional loyalties. At the same time, Mondale was extremely careful to keep his dissent private and in public he always supported the administration’s position.

One area where Mondale consistently refused opportunities for expanded responsibilities was in taking on line assignments. Mondale felt that assignments not already occupied would either trivialize the office, or if they were substantial bring the vice president into conflict with existing authorities.

Mondale’s successor, Vice President Bush benefited from the changes to the vice presidency under Carter and Mondale. Like Mondale, Bush had regular private meetings with President Reagan and was given access to White House meetings and paper flow.

Unlike Mondale, Bush did take on line assignments. Most notably, Bush chaired the White House crisis management group and an inter-agency task force on narcotics interdiction in Florida. He was given the crisis management role because of a feud between the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor over who should take the chair the committee. The President resolved this feud by appointing the vice president.

It was in this vein that Bush was asked to chair the task force. Secretary of State George Schultz described it as a “vice presidential sort of thing to do” because, in part, the vice president was seen as free from institutional loyalties.

Vice President Bush himself brought a number of qualifications to the task. A former congressman, ambassador to the UN and China, and Director of Central Intelligence, Bush had extensive foreign policy experience and a vast range of contacts both within the government and without.

Vice President’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism
On July 20, 1985 President Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive 179, instructing the Vice President to convene a government-wide task force on combating terrorism. The task force was charged with reviewing the effectiveness of current U.S. policy and programs and providing the President with recommendations by the end of 1985.

The task force included major cabinet secretaries, the directors of the FBI, CIA, and OMB, along with the National Security Advisor and the President’s Chief of Staff. The task force was staffed by a combination of representatives from concerned agencies and consultants from the Institute for Defense Analysis. A Senior Review Group included counter-terror officials from relevant agencies at the assistant secretary level and the Task Force’s Executive Director was former chief of naval operations, James Holloway.

The task force delivered its report to the president on January 6, 1986. It included 44 recommendations, which were incorporated into National Security Decision Directive 207, which was issued on January 20, 1986. Approximately half of the directives remain classified.

Directives known to the public include a range of activities including assigning lead agencies for different types of terrorist incidents and establishing frameworks within the national security council for managing incidents. More specific proposals called for improving international counter-terror cooperation, reviewing port security, expanding the program that offered reward money to those who provided information leading to the apprehension of terrorists, improving security for U.S. government personnel abroad, and improving outreach to hostage families, the media, and the public in general.

Perhaps the most substantial practical proposal was the establishment of a consolidated intelligence center on terrorism that could act as a common database for all concerned agencies, study future threats, and potentially create a cadre of specialized intelligence analysts.

In an article in a 1987 article in the SAIS Review, Vice President Bush argued that the Task Force’s real accomplishment was not necessarily in the policy, but in the process. The task force found over 150 government units involved in combating terrorism, employing thousands of peoples, and spending over $2 billion annually. Agencies with a stake in counter-terrorism were brought to the table and even where issues were not fully resolved, some level of understanding was reached. Bush stated this was important because, “…there were long-standing disputes within the government… the sum of them had produced snags in the policymaking process… The president was not receiving and adequate array of options for action, and those he was getting did not enjoy sufficiently broad support within the government.”

The most important area of discussion was the fundamental question of the circumstances under which American military force would be used as a response against terrorist attacks. The Secretaries of Defense and State had been arguing this question for several years Secretary of State George Schultz firmly supported forceful retaliations and was worried the United States would become the “Hamlet of nations.” Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was cautious about committing American military force in these complex situations. There was also a concern that the retaliation would not be effective and only further stoke anti-American anger. The Vice President wrote, “The task force did not resolve once and for all the question of when and how to retaliate with force…. But the task force did reach agreement that force would at times be necessary. It did narrow the distance between the parties on when and how to use it.”

Because many of the Task Force’s recommendations are classified, it is not clear exactly to what extent the Report’s findings were implemented. In early 1987 the Task Force’s Executive Director James Holloway conducted a review of agency compliance with NSDD 207. The results were not encouraging. The CIA had not set up a special counter-terror training program (although it had set up a counter-terrorism center, it was primarily operational rather than analytical.) In other areas, airline security improved but was still difficult to coordinate with the many airlines. Port security and border control had not been addressed effectively.

According to an article in U.S. News and World Report, by reporter Steven Emerson, who had obtained a copy of NSDD 207, less than half of the Task Force’s recommendations were implemented.

Perhaps the most telling point is that about a decade later, when the Clinton administration introduced its Omnibus Counter-Terrorism Act of 1995, it incorporated some of the recommendations from the Bush Task Force.

In other regards, the Task Force may have had some success. After a bombing of a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen was linked to Libya, the U.S. responded with Operation El Dorado – a short bombing campaign against Libya that nearly killed Libyan leader Moummar Qaddafi and reducing his support for terrorism. In the SAIS Review, Bush argued that April 14-15 bombing campaign was possible because of the inter-agency process undertaken by his task force created guidelines about the use of force against terrorists.

The VP also argued that the process of engagement between agencies helped create rules of engagement and standard operating procedures that coordinated across the dozens of agencies with a stake in counter-terror issues. Within the administration, Vice President Bush had been an advocate for “managing” terrorism. Improving outreach and international agreements helped the administration take a lower-key approach to terrorism.

Return to Zegart’s Thesis
Does Zegart’s argument hold for the Bush Task Force on Terrorism? The fate of the Task Force recommendations appears in line with the recommendations made by the commissions established during the 1990s that Zegart analyzed. The rate of implementing recommendations is comparable and the reasons for these failures include elements of organizational inertia, rational self-interest, and divided powers.

One of Bush’s top counter-terror priorities was establishing an intelligence center on terrorism. As a former DCI, Bush was well placed to see the utility and potential for such an operation. For a time in the late 1980s, under legendary case office Duane Claridge the CIA’s counter-terror center was very active. But its activity was focused on operations (the center had important successes against the Abu Nidal Organization). As terrorism faded with the decline of the Soviet-aligned leftist and separatist groups and the PLO’s entrance into negotiations with Israel the CIA’s counter-terror center became a backwater. The CIA’s fundamental focus was not on terrorism and, as soon as practical, the agency returned to business as usual.

Another agency that did not adapt to its counter-terror mission was the FAA. Formally designated the lead agency for airline hijackings by the Task Force report, the FAA did not prioritize this mission. The FAA has a conflicting mandate to promote air travel, and this was the dominant agency mission. The FAA’s intelligence unit was remote from the in the agency leadership and did not receive substantial attention.

Vice President Bush went on to become president, but there is little evidence that he sought to further implement his Task Force’s recommendations at the CIA or elsewhere. U.S.-Soviet relations and the first Gulf War were higher priorities for the first Bush administration.

This illustrates rational political decision-making. While Reagan had harsh rhetoric against terrorism, actual policy options were often unattractive. As time went on, the administration recognized that terrorism issues could devour enormous amounts of administration time, but to little real gain. Edwin Meese, as Bush’s policy advisor called for an aggressive international campaign against terrorists including extensive covert action. Later, as Attorney General – after the administration had managed several terrorism crises – Meese embraced a lower-key approach. Bush also exemplified this rational decision-making in his statement in the Task Force report that: “Our national program is well-conceived and working.” While Admiral Holliday’s review found that there was only limited compliance with the Task Force’s recommendations, on June 2, 1987 Bush reported to Reagan that “our task force has reaffirmed our current policy for combating terrorism is sound [and] effective…” While the American people were concerned about terrorism, the effort required by the political leadership to actually implement the recommendations was enormous and would not have had a major political pay-off. Vice President Bush won the 1988 election and his 1992 loss was not due to issues related to terrorism.

The strongest example of the importance of diffusion of power is that when the Clinton administration attempted to establish strong counter-terror policies with the 1995 Omnibus, many of its proposals came from the Bush Task Force.
In another case, Congress refused to give the FAA access to information needed to warn airlines about the backgrounds of passengers while the airlines resisted efforts to design more secure cockpits. Many of the Bush Task Force recommendations required congressional action, which, Zegart notes can be difficult to attain under even ideal circumstances.

Vice President’s Role
Is there a fundamental difference between a Task Force headed by the vice president and a more traditional, blue ribbon commission?

From a practical standpoint, the final recommendations of the Bush Task Force may not have been substantially different from those of a comparable blue-ribbon commission. There are two areas where differences could exist. Calls for major governmental re-organization would probably not come from a figure within the administration – knowing the practical challenges of achieving the re-organization and realizing that this would alienate bureaucracies that the White House has to deal with. Second, commissions outside the administration can issue stark warnings and criticism. An administration’s own vice president however, is unlikely to call out his own president and administration for doing an inadequate job.

In terms of implementing reforms, it does not appear that a vice president-led task force has any particular advantage over traditional blue-ribbon commissions.

In his article for the SAIS Review, Bush does make a case for an area where his Task Force could have been effective. Bush argued that the process was more important then the results. In Bureaucracy, James Q. Wilson discusses different types of political efforts to foster coordination between agencies. Generally, efforts to interfere with standard operating procedure and agency culture are resisted, whereas adjudicating agency disputes and focusing on developing policy options can be effective. A blue-ribbon commission, operating outside the administration would have difficulty performing this function. A vice president, who had the respect of the president and was engaged in the administration’s operations, could perform this function.

Areas for further exploration
This is only a preliminary look at the Vice President’s Task Force on Terrorism. Beyond a more in-depth study of the adoption and failure to adopt proposals and how they fit with the Zegart paradigm, several areas are worth further exploration.

One area, not discussed in this paper is the Iran-Contra affair. Examining how it related to the Task Force and its operations could be illuminating. At the very least, it highlights how a disorderly process can create enormous policy problems.

Another important question is whether or not the number of proposals adopted and rejected is the only measure of a commission’s activities. But, Bush argued at the time, the real fruits of the endeavor were in the process itself. A closer study of this issue and an appropriate metric would be useful.

The 9/11 Commission Report

George H. W. Bush, Combatting Terrorism: The Official Report of the Cabinet-Level Task Force Chaired by Vice-President George Bush (1987)

George H. W. Bush, “Prelude to Retaliation: Building a Governmental Consensus on Terrorism,” SAIS Review (1987)

Paul Kengor, Wreath Layer of Policy Player? The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy ( 2000)

Paul Light, Vice Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House (1984)

Timothy Naftali, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism (2005)

James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (1989)

Amy Zegart, “September 11 and the Adaptation Failure of U.S. Intelligence Agencies,” International Security (Spring 2005)

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