Stanford Research: Bureaucracy Contributed to the 9/11 Attacks

Business school's research points to failures in communication channels


While discovering and averting terrorists' plans requires the ability to "connect the dots," as the commission report observed, intelligence organizations had evolved mechanisms to keep the dots isolated. Foreign intelligence agencies were busy looking for threats abroad, while domestic agencies were looking at local targets. No one was looking for a foreign threat to a domestic target. And that was just the wormhole international terrorists needed.

Kramer notes that in bureaucracies, where problems are huge and intractable, most people find little value in taking on responsibility for difficult issues, and in Washington in 2001, terrorism was one such hot potato. Congress passed off work on this question to others, and even an organization like the National Security Agency didn't think it should investigate certain individuals who had been identified as part of a possible terrorist cadre. In organizational parlance, the hero interested in taking on terrorism was missing.

"What have we learned as a result of all of this analysis?" asks Kramer. "Are we safer than we were before?" Yes and no, he concludes ambivalently. On the one hand, lessons of the past tend to be lost or distorted over time, yet the autopsy of 9/11 will be going on well into the future. "As was the case with the Cuban missile crisis," says Kramer, "the revelations will no doubt lead to a much deeper and richer understanding of how a confluence of institutional mechanisms and behavioral tendencies can leave the door open to disaster. I do think that decision makers can learn from such analysis."