Terrorism Risks and ’Timeless Problems’

Failures to stop the recent U.S. airliner bomb plot and the destruction of a CIA base in Afghanistan illustrate inherent problems in intelligence gathering, and al-Qaeda’s impenetrability, says CFR’s Richard K. Betts.

January 8, 2010 3:45 pm (EST)

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.

While recent intelligence failures have stirred concern and controversy, they are "timeless problems," says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Richard K. Betts, an occasional consultant to U.S. intelligence agencies. "There are tradeoffs in dealing with these problems that will never be resolved," he says. "The price of reducing one risk is sometimes to raise another risk or raise the cost to a level that doesn’t seem worthwhile." Complicating the American counterterrorism picture, Betts says the suicide bombing by the "double agent" in Khost, which killed several CIA officers, shows how difficult it is to try to infiltrate al-Qaeda at the highest levels.

What is your impression of these intelligence "screw-ups," in the president’s words, over the past several weeks: the attempted airplane bombing on Christmas Day by a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the killings of several CIA agents at a base in Khost, Afghanistan, by a double agent? Are these systematic failures?

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These show the inherent limitations in the system of warnings. The pieces of information which should have led officials to take better precautions are now obvious in hindsight. There are certainly improvements that can be made technically in the system for correlating information. And the intelligence agencies are doing that now. But there are tradeoffs too. When you reduce risks in some ways, other problems may arise. For example, you can prevent a lot more people from flying. But there are problems related to that politically and practically. And you can follow up more potential leads, but there are so many leads in the sense of fragmentary indicators that somebody may be a "bad guy" that you have to allocate more and more resources to make sure you don’t neglect some marginal possibility. In hindsight, it looks like Abdulmutallab was an obvious person who should have set alarm bells ringing. But there are lots of others for whom you have only bits and pieces of worrisome data, and if you are going to try to follow up all of them you are going to need a lot more people working on it, and there is going to be a lot more bureaucracy and a lot more wasted effort. Over time, this is going to make people sour on the wasted resources until there is another disaster. Remember, right after 9/11 there was a huge consensus for doing everything possible to combat terrorism, to leave no precaution unused. But over the past eight years, things gradually relaxed as people got used to what was a good record.

In fact, there had been no serious attempt on American targets in the United States since 9/11 until now--with the exception of the "shoe bomber" in December 2001 aboard an American Airlines plane.

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Yes, and people lose sight of that. If you look at it as a glass half full, the system has worked pretty well, in the sense that al-Qaeda has a huge incentive to mount another attack inside the United States and they haven’t done it in over eight years. That is not totally, but in a large part, due to all of the precautions taken in the improvements in intelligence and screening and the visa process. In the case of Abdulmutallab, these broke down, but overall they have worked well. But psychologically, that doesn’t register on most people. There is also a psychological problem about fixating on the risks of terrorism. While it is understandable, people are much less tolerant of the actually small risk of being killed by terrorists than they are of the much bigger risk we run every day in things we take for granted, like driving. We could reduce traffic fatalities dramatically if we wanted to pay the very high costs and make life more inconvenient. But psychologically, Americans don’t want to do that. They’d rather accept fifty thousand traffic deaths a year as the cost of doing business. But we don’t think of accepting risks in regard to terrorism in the same way. There’s much more of a visceral feeling that those risks have to be reduced to zero.

President Obama has dramatized this by accepting overall blame. He added that we are now in a "war against al-Qaeda." I know the administration was against the term "war against terrorism," which the Bush administration liked.

He had to politically. People are upset at the recent events. They looked to most people and are portrayed in the press as egregious failures of the system. Also, the administration is under constant pressure from the right, which accuses it of being soft on national security. So when something like this happens, he has to beat the drum and show he takes it seriously.

Remember, right after 9/11 there was a huge consensus for doing everything possible to combat terrorism, to leave no precaution unused. But over the past eight years, things gradually relaxed as people got used to what was a good record.

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Let me reiterate that these are timeless problems. There are tradeoffs in dealing with these problems that will never be resolved. The price of reducing one risk is sometimes to raise another risk or raise the cost to a level that doesn’t seem worthwhile. Most people on the outside don’t want to believe that there is not a solution that can’t be found if we’re just serious enough and responsible enough. Though the system can be improved, it would be unrealistic to think that the only problem is people falling down on the job. Ultimately, even in a very good system, once in a while if you’re facing very resourceful and skillful enemies, they are going to find a way to get through the system.

In the history of the United States, this was hardly the most significant intelligent failure, right?

No. But it was the most recent, and that’s what people pay attention to.

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After Pearl Harbor in 1941, did people blame President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the surprise attack by the Japanese?

Well, some on the right did. Republicans tried to get some momentum up for an investigation to put the blame on the administration, but that never got much traction. But Pearl Harbor spurred the biggest reorganization of the intelligence community in the United States, and that reorganization lasted roughly until 9/11 prompted the next reorganization. So December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, are the two biggest disasters that shook everything up in the United States and led to basic changes in how the system is organized.

Talk about the changes that took place after 9/11. We now have a huge bureaucracy, don’t we?

Well, we always have had. The question is how the wiring diagram has changed and whether the changes are net improvements. You will get different opinions on that. My personal view is that the reorganization and the legislation, which created the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI), hasn’t really been as big an improvement as the people pushing that reorganization had hoped. One of the criticisms that skeptics have leveled against it is that it has added another layer of bureaucracy when one of the problems in the past has been too much complexity and the need to streamline things. But I think this just reflects the fact that it is inherent in the intelligence problem that you are going to have failures or complications whichever way you tilt. If you streamline things and make them less complicated, things will work faster and in some ways more efficiently, but they’ll also miss more because they won’t cover as much. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything and you cover everything, then you tend to make the system more complicated and in some ways more sluggish. I don’t think there is any way around that tradeoff. So, calls for reform tend to go back and forth depending on what sorts of problems come to the fore.

The unclassified version of the Christmas Day report sort of pinned blame on both the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) for not connecting the dots. Was that fair?

While it is understandable, people are much less tolerant of the actually small risk of being killed by terrorists than they are of the much bigger risk we run every day in things we take for granted, like driving.

It’s fair in the sense that it happened on their watch and the reforms explicitly created this new organization of NCTC in order to avoid problems like this. That is the failure to correlate information and indicators together in the same place. It is unfair perhaps in a sense that we can’t be sure that we know the whole story and the specific details of who fell down exactly where in getting the bits and pieces of information together. But it is true that we can see in hindsight that these bits and pieces did exist within the system and weren’t put together in the way that the reforms wanted to be sure they were put together. So yes, the blame has to fall there.

And on the State Department too for not realizing that the Nigerian had a visa?

Yes, that’s a problem I am pretty sure is going to be fixed. Up until now, they had very good procedures for making sure that people like him would not get a visa. They just had not instituted a procedure to check to see if people like that already had a visa that should be revoked. That’s something that can be fixed.

Talk about the disaster in Khost in which CIA agents were killed by the double agent who blew himself up. It seems on the surface to be a very big mistake to let him get so close to so many people without being checked.

It is unclear how big a screw-up it was, in the sense that I don’t think we know for sure at this moment exactly how they fell down in plans for searching the guy--at what stage of entry into the compound he was. But I would emphasize that it’s a disaster in two respects. One, it killed a lot of essential CIA personnel who dealt with this important problem. And two, it will make it harder to exploit potential opportunities like this guy seemed to be. Until he blew himself up, he looked like he might be the one in the million that had access to al-Qaeda at very high levels. But after this, any other person who seems potentially to offer that possibility is going to be subject to a lot more skepticism. And it will be a lot harder to take risks in trying to exploit him.

Are there built-in problems for American intelligence agencies trying to penetrate foreign cultures? During the Cold War, the United States had to rely on Soviet defectors who could be trusted for a lot of the information on the Soviet Union.

It’s very hard to find people who are capable of penetrating; who have the language skills and the personal background which makes it possible that the "bad guys" will trust them. It is very hard to find them and when they are found, it’s also very hard for them to do the job, because al-Qaeda is a fairly sophisticated and professional organization and is not stupid about who it lets into the inner sanctum. There is a general cultural problem too, in the sense that among radical Islamists and the populations in which al-Qaeda hides, there is a high degree of support for al-Qaeda which we haven’t been able to crack. We’ve offered for years these huge multimillion-dollar rewards for information on getting various "bad guys." They haven’t worked in a very dramatic way and certainly haven’t worked to get someone at the top. People in the areas where al-Qaeda personnel are deployed seem immune to big money incentives.


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