When Agencies Sleep

Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, an enlisted man running an experimental radar unit in Hawaii spotted a flight of unexplained aircraft headed toward Oahu. He phoned his lieutenant, who was still asleep. Forget it, the lieutenant said: It's probably just a flight of B-17s coming in from California.

A few hours later, the United States Pacific Fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, and 2,300 Americans had died in a surprise Japanese attack.

Fast-forward to Jan. 15, 2003: As the space shuttle Columbia blasted off from Cape Canaveral, pieces of foam broke off the fuel tanks and struck the spacecraft's left wing. Video cameras captured the event, and several days later, concerned engineers called for satellite photography to see if the foam damaged the shuttle's wing. Managers assumed there was no problem and turned down the request.

On Feb. 1, Columbia disintegrated on reentry with the loss of all aboard, because of a hole in the leading edge of the left wing caused by the strike.

The common thread that runs through these and many similar incidents over the years is a lack of alertness - a blasé attitude toward the dangers inherent in a situation. It's a mental laziness that can spread through any organization; for example, to newspaper editors who ignore staff warnings about poor-quality work from a reporter. Or to police departments that allegedly ignore threats on the life of a key witness in a murder trial, as happened recently in New York, with fatal results for the witness.

For NASA, as for all organizations, the question - and it is a tough one - is how to build a culture that encourages and rewards vigilance, rather than punishes it. It's hard because bureaucracies seem to naturally resist change in approach or procedure. Many thought that after the 1986 Challenger disaster, the space agency would put safety first. But complacency crept back.

How to build alertness into an organization has serious homeland- security implications as well. A government commission is trying to find out what various US government agencies knew about pre-9/11 terrorist threats and what they did with that knowledge.

It's crucial that the nation know whether the State and Defense departments, the CIA, the FBI, and others were insufficiently alert before the attacks. The commission says some agencies are now dragging their feet in turning over information. The White House should insist that agencies fulfill the commission's requests as soon as possible. Too much is at stake to risk an incomplete inquiry.

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