Do you remember the opening to the old TV show “Get Smart”? In it, a secret agent named Maxwell Smart marches purposely into a building, walks into a fake elevator, passes through a series of steel doors, enters a phone booth, dials a special number, then drops mysteriously underground.
The show was a comedy and the opening tongue-in-cheek. But for many years, Americans held that sort of impression of our intelligence and security agencies. There were layers, then more layers, then secret layers, then more layers. What you thought you saw, you didn’t. Where you didn’t see someone, that’s when they were watching.
“Oh, I bet the government has people on that,” we would say. Or “You know the government must have all that information already.”
The Cold War following World War II made everyone suspicious, and spawned a blind trust in our government to protect us. Spies and clandestine files were presumed normal. It continued that way for decades. Serious names helped steel our impressions. Central Intelligence Agency. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Department of Homeland Security.
They just SOUND like they know what they’re doing, right?
But as the years pass, and information, thanks to the internet, becomes far more accessible to the average person, it seems our sense of security in the agencies that oversee us may be as poorly placed as believing that Maxwell Smart was a real spy.
‘Would you believe … ?’
The recent stunning accusation that a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman leaked classified information on the internet has many Americans yelling, “Where’s the ‘secure’ in security?”
The young man, Jack Teixeira, who reportedly worked night shifts as a low-level computer tech in Massachusetts, nonetheless is charged with passing around secret information with his gaming buddies — information that was only weeks old, and concerned serious data about Russia, Ukraine, South Korea and the U.S. military.
The New York Times, which was the first to identify Teixeira, quoted experts last week who said that 20-something-year-old government workers having access to this kind of material is far more common than we imagine. According to one expert, there’s “nothing really stopping anyone from printing something and carrying it out. It ain’t as Gucci as people think.”
Well. Gucci isn’t the image that comes to mind when you think national security. But maybe it should be. Because apparently, getting into Gucci is a lot harder than getting into our intelligence.
The thing is, we keep acting surprised. Why? Consider the last two decades. After 9/11, we were aghast that we missed those terrorist plots, or that our airport security could somehow let box cutters go right past them. So we tightened up. Spent a fortune. Increased manpower at airports immeasurably and made boarding a plane as difficult as boarding a spaceship — all to feel more secure.
Then, in 2015, the DHS ran tests that showed that 95% of banned weapons or mock explosives were getting through anyhow.
Not enough to say, ‘sorry about that, Chief’
Human error. Too much bureaucracy. Misguided leadership. The list goes on.
Our government was so certain that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction that we went to war in 2003, costing thousands of lives, ours and theirs. But no such weapons were ever found. Nearly 20 years later, our government severely underestimated what would happen in Afghanistan if we pulled out our remaining military force. The result was a debacle.
We assumed the banking industry had safeguards against the kind of thing that happened in the mortgage crisis in 2007. Then the mortgage crisis happened.
We assumed the FBI had kept its paperwork tight enough to stop a 21 year-old white supremacist with a record like Dylann Roof from buying a gun. Then Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers in a South Carolina church.
We assumed national and local governments would keep New Orleans safe from Hurricane Katrina. Didn’t happen. We assumed our health agencies were always prepared for something like COVID-19. Then COVID-19 bowled us over.
Larry Nasser. Edward Snowden. How many times do we shake our heads and say “I can’t believe we weren’t better protected?” The list of agency failures, miscommunications, human errors, or lack of preparation is long and growing. Heck, our government just let a Chinese spy balloon fly the length of the country, then contradicted itself over what intelligence that balloon could gather.
Yet despite new examples like Jack Teixeira, we continue to trust that “they must know what they are doing.”
I’m not so sure. It seems to me the more we pressure test big bureaucracies, the more cracks we find.
Twenty-one-year-olds leaking intelligence to gamers is worse than embarrassing, it’s shocking. Yet we go on figuring the steel doors are secure, and the elevator in the phone booth will drop us to safety.
After a colossal screw-up, Maxwell Smart was famous for putting two fingers together and saying, “missed it by THAT much.”
It’s funny in a TV show. Not very funny in real life.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.