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Intel Gaffes: Follow the Dropped Balls

Author: Greg Bruno
January 8, 2010

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Stung by intelligence failures that contributed to the Christmas Day airline terrorism attempt, the White House has called for tweaks (PDF) to the way intelligence on terror suspects is monitored, analyzed, and distributed. President Barack Obama has ordered stronger airport screening, streamlining intelligence sharing, and an overhaul to the way people are added to the government's various watch lists (AP), including its "no-fly list" (Wired).

Yet staying "one step ahead of a nimble adversary," as the president has vowed, will hinge on untangling bureaucratic failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a flight to Detroit with explosives sewn into his underpants. (He was indicted January 6 on charges of attempted murder). An underestimation of the threat (WashPost) posed by al-Qaeda in Yemen played a role in the gaffe, as did such administrative errors as an initial misspelling of Abdulmutallab's name by the State Department. Agencies were also ordered to follow leads more aggressively, something former White House counterterrorism director Richard Clarke says they should have been doing anyway (CBS).

Steven Simon, a CFR senior fellow and former senior National Security Council official, says altering how databases and watch lists are administrated is "where the biggest payoff is going to be in the intelligence area, apart from maybe speeding up the flow of information."

Analysts also believe adjustments are needed to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which was created after September 11 to force the government's sixteen intelligence agencies to share information on suspects and plots. Some intelligence experts believe the NCTC dropped the ball (WashPost) on uncovering the late-December attack plan. Rick Nelson, a former supervisor at the center, tells NPR key pieces of information were not properly aggregated. Obama, in announcing his directives, called on the NCTC to "establish and resource appropriately" a process to investigate all "terrorism threat threads," though he did not specify how the effort would be resourced. As the Washington Independent reports, there are just eight to nine analysts at any given time responsible for "millions of pieces of fragmentary data relevant to terrorism in the Middle East."

President Obama's response to the intelligence mishap, and his claim of responsibility for the oversights, seems aimed at shifting the focus away from an incident that has consumed his administration's attention for a week. Opponents have pounced on the Christmas Day plot in an effort to paint Obama as weak on national security (Politico). Matt Dallek, a political historian at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, says the president's advisers are obviously concerned about the mounting partisan political attacks (VOA). The White House, for its part, says it's ready to "close ... this part of the investigation."

That's unlikely to happen. As editorials in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal suggest, post-9/11 overhauls to the intelligence apparatus have failed to plug the holes; more changes than those outlined on January 7 may be needed. Other chapters are likely to remain open as well. Revelations that Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen--and may have even met with the same Yemeni cleric (AP) who was in contact with the alleged Fort Hood shooter--have muddied plans to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay. Transfers of inmates to Yemen have already been halted (CNN), amid reports that a greater percentage of former Guantanamo inmates are returning to extremist activity (LAT). And like the Christmas Day plot, the recent attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan raises serious questions about the competency of American intelligence agencies (WSJ), writes former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht. As CFR's Walter Russell Mead suggests, Obama's biggest future challenge may be keeping all these promises, especially, if another attack materializes (PBS).

Background

Read the White House's review of the security lapses that led to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an American airliner near Detroit.

A long list of corrective actions has been ordered to strengthen the U.S. watch-listing system, and improve efforts to track terrorists.

Analysis

Terrorism expert James Jay Carafano says despite promises of a "shocking" review (USA Today), there was nothing particularly revealing in the president's report.

The New Republic's Michael Crowley writes that in the wake of the near-successful Christmas Day bombing, airport screening standards are certain to become more intrusive.

Philip Bobbitt, who serves on the Task Force on Law and Security at the Hoover Institution, examines the new rules of engagement in the fight against terrorism.

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