- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
President Obama has said "systemic failures" contributed to the Christmas Day plot that nearly took down a U.S. airliner, and on January 5 described the failure not as one of intelligence collection, but collation between agencies. He has ordered an investigation into why key data points weren’t pieced together beforehand. CFR’s Steven Simon, a former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council, says the intelligence apparatus performed about as well as could be expected under the system’s current designs. "The issue to me is one of timing, and that’s a function of a number of things," Simon says. "One is the overall volume of information, what’s coming over the transom. The second is institutional frameworks, what processes are in play to speed the flow of information and select the information, that’s really important." Simon expressed hope that adjustments to the system will be focused on the need to "sort out the mess of all the different lists and databases, and mesh those with the information available to airlines, who are the ones at the end of the day who have to keep people off an airplane."
President Obama has blamed "systemic failures" for the Christmas Day terror plot targeting an American airliner. What type of failures is the president talking about? Intelligence? Aviation security? Both?
He’s referring to these failures as systemic because they involved more than one link in the chain. There are really two principal ones. The first is that, for whatever reason, information imparted by Abdulmutallab’s father [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is the Nigerian national accused of smuggling a bomb onto a Northwest flight with explosives sewn into his underpants; his father reportedly visited the U.S. embassy in Nigeria’s capital to warn American officials of his son’s increased radicalization (CNN)] to the effect of his son’s radicalization didn’t get into the system, at least in a timely way such that his visa would have been reviewed or revoked and his name be put on a watch list. The second, of course, is that he was let onto the airplane carrying a bomb. So, the president probably is on firm ground pointing to systemic failure.
"Terrorism is just one of those things that becomes political very quickly."
A number of flags were raised prior to this incident, within the State Department, the CIA, and other agencies. Was there enough information, dots to connect, that should have come together to keep this guy off the plane?
There was enough. The question is, are we being realistic in looking at the amount of time this big, unruly national security bureaucracy had to match these bits up? My guess, and this is obviously speculative, is that all of this would have been pieced together in the fullness of time because, my sense from following developments and talking to people inside government, is that information sharing is much better than it was. I don’t think you would find the kind of peculiar failures to share information that one found before 2001 regarding the 9/11 attackers. We’re not in that domain, where information was withheld by players in the system for reasons of either bureaucratic game playing or the instinct to hold intelligence that one saw as characteristic of these agencies. I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
John Brennan, the president’s top terrorism advisor, told CNN that this plot was "not like 9/11" in terms of intelligence failures. You’d tend to agree with him?
Given what I know about what happened, he seems to be on firm ground in making that statement. So the issue to me is one of timing, and that’s a function of a number of things. One is the overall volume of information, what’s coming over the transom. So that already slows things up, because people can process information just so quickly and move it just so quickly. The second is institutional frameworks--what processes are in play to speed the flow of information and select the information that’s really important from the great mass of data that’s washing over you. Those kinds of organizational protocols are probably as good as they’re ever going to get, which is not the same thing as saying that they’re perfect. What we don’t know is whether a piece of this information was in the possession of a particular analyst, intelligence officer, what have you, who should have seen its importance but delayed in passing it on. In other words, was there some sort of undue delay? That would come out in the review, but thus far the nature of the system seems to me to be enough of an explanation for the span of time it was taking to connect these particular dots, which would have been connected in the fullness of time.
The president has ordered a series of reviews into the botched attack, one on screening airline passengers, another on the U.S. terror-watch system. What will these reviews focus on?
It’s a review with multiple objectives. This incident has really seized the attention of the public and the media. The fact that the president has scheduled a meeting to talk about the intelligence--processing protocols that are in play and what actually happened in this particular case and what can be done to improve not just intelligence flow but defenses--that sort of thing is not everyday behavior. That’s triggered by intense public interest. Normally, as a matter of practice, the president has a cabinet; he has a national security principles committee and other layers of decision makers who can grapple with these things. The president deals with the results in the Oval Office. To have a meeting presided over by the president is a vivid display of an engaged White House, a necessary indication given the public’s mood and the serious concern that’s been raised about this. Now, that’s happening against a supercharged political environment, adversarial political environment, where the vice president of a previous administration has come out swinging and accusing this administration of failing in this particular instance as a result of its broader approach to the war on terrorism. It’s essential, for political reasons, that the president be out front here.
It was only a matter of weeks between when the father approached U.S. officials in Nigeria and the day the plot unfolded. Is it realistic to connect the dots in such a way that could have averted this guy from getting on the plane?
This gets back to my assessment that whatever you think about the current system, it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. Even under the pre-9/11 dispensation, it wasn’t the organization of the intelligence community that was the problem. The problem was the orientation of one or another piece of this system and the effect that had on a certain piece of information regarding two of the attackers being passed or not passed. We’re Americans, and we think if something goes wrong, well then there’s got to be a fix so it doesn’t happen again. So you look for these kinds of organizational fixes. That’s what happened after 2001. It was perfectly understandable in the American context. This is what we did, but it’s not like that cure was directly related, in any way, to the disease that we were trying to extirpate. In the post-2001 environment, there is even less of a likelihood that you’re going to get that kind of information hoarding that arguably contributed to the disastrous outcome on 9/11, but it’s not as though you are automatically in territory where everything is going to work perfectly and really fast.
Whether you’re talking about before 9/11 or after 9/11, if you’d have gotten a walk-in, like Mr. Abdulmutallab the elder, coming in and saying, "My son has just left on a multi-legged flight to the United States, which is about to leave, and he’s got a bomb with him, and he’s been in touch with really bad people in Yemen," I have a feeling that that information would have percolated to senior levels in the government pretty quickly, and the system would have be mobilized to find him and stop him from coming into the country. But you need that trigger. The thing about connecting dots is that the phrase presumes that you’ve got all these dots. You know, you have some dots, but you don’t necessarily have all the dots you need to give you that vivid picture of a terrorist on the march or a conspiracy unfolding.
"If there’s any tinkering, it’s going to be on the edges of things. It’s going to be aimed at making the existing system work better."
You wrote in your 2005 book, The Next Attack, that one of the problems post-9/11 was that the United States was caught in a perpetual loop of reorganizing homeland security. Do we risk falling into the same trap this time, or has the political landscape changed so much that there is little appetite for wholesale reform?
God help us if we go through another reorganization. The stomach for another reorganization, certainly on a vast a scale as was done after 2001, just isn’t there. If there’s any tinkering, it’s going to be on the edges of things. It’s going to be aimed at making the existing system work better, and perhaps things like new guidance going out to embassies to be more attentive to walk-ins of this kind. And certainly a lot of work will be done, as a lot of work was done in the second Clinton term, and during the Bush administration, to sort out the mess of all the different lists and databases, and mesh those with the information available to airlines, who are the ones at the end of the day who have to keep people off an airplane. There may be some progress in that area. Hopefully there will be. That’s where the biggest payoff is going to be in the intelligence area, apart from maybe speeding up the flow of information. But it’s not like the intelligence community is deaf to calls for information sharing and better coordination and dot connecting. The big issue on that score will emerge in the review of the events surrounding the Fort Hood shooting [when, on November 5, 2009, a U.S. Army major with links to terrorists in Yemen opened fire, killing thirteen people].
Because of the connection to the Yemeni cleric?
Because information on this guy’s attitudes on the one hand, and his communications to Anwar al-Awlaki on the other, didn’t make it to the organizations that it should have, and wasn’t dealt with expeditiously as a result.
It’s interesting you raised the Fort Hood shooting example. Clearly there was finger pointing following that attack, but the political rancor following the Christmas Day episode seems to have been much louder. Is this because the December 25 plot unfolded during a slow holiday news week, or is the outcry warranted?
I am somewhat sympathetic to that view, but having said that, a guy got on an airplane with a bomb. That is the kind of thing that catches attention, even during a fast news week. The administration wasn’t really as adroit at handling the initial blowback from it as it might have been, in particular the claim that the system worked, because, after all, the passengers pounced on the suspect and restrained him. Officials sometimes come out with these things, and then you just poured gasoline on what is already becoming, certainly in this case, a partisan issue. You have mobilized media on both sides, but particularly on the side of the Republican opposition, who are just going to run with it. Terrorism is just one of those things that becomes political very quickly.
What risks does President Obama run in alienating the intelligence community if he pushes too forcefully with his intelligence review?
He’s taken somebody from within the community, a community stalwart, and not only that, a person who was resisted by some Democrats because of his involvement in the previous administration’s counterterrorism activities, and he took him on as a deputy national security advisor. And I think, apart from the fact that the person in question, [John] Brennan, is very talented and competent, very good for that job, the signal was a selection to the intelligence community saying, "Look who I’m relying on in this West Wing job." I think the president has already made clear that he’s on their side. But at the same time, he’s got a much bigger political problem that he needs to deal with. He’s got to put out this fire, and he’s not going to put it out by giving an a priori pass to the government apparatus that was supposed to produce a different result. He can’t do that. Anyway, this is the United States. It’s not Syria. God forbid I should malign Syria, but this is not a place where the president has to worry about the head of the intelligence agency turning against him. It’s the United States of America. Things don’t work like that, and even if rank and file intelligence community operatives feel kind of brow beaten, it’s not like they are not going to do their jobs.