Intelligence Can Never Be Perfect
Go read this article—”Setting impossible standards on intelligence”—on laying blame for the intelligence “failure” that allowed the Underwear Bomber to board an airplane on Christmas Day.
Although the CIA, FBI, and Defense, State, Treasury and Homeland Security departments have counterterrorism analytic units—some even with information-gathering operations—the assumption is that all of the data are passed on to NCTC.
The law, by the way, specifically says that the NCTC director “may not direct the execution of counterterrorism operations.”
The Senate committee’s list identifying “points of failure” shows that not all relevant information from some agencies landed at the NCTC.
Perhaps the leading example was the State Department’s failure to notify the NCTC in its initial reporting that Abdulmutallab—whose father had reported him missing in November and suspected “involvement with Yemeni-based extremists”—had an outstanding U.S. visa.
This initial fact, if contained in State’s first notice to the NCTC, would have raised the importance of his status. Instead, Abdulmutallab became one of hundreds of new names sent to the NCTC that day. The Senate panel blurs this in its report by focusing on State’s failure—as well as NCTC’s—to revoke the visa. Neither the department nor NCTC discovered the visa until it was too late.
Two other agencies also failed to report important relevant information.
How can the NCTC perform its role, which by law is “to serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups,” if its analysts are unaware that additional intelligence exists at other agencies? The committee’s answer to that, listed as failure 10, was that the “NCTC’s watchlisting office did not conduct additional research to find additional derogatory information to place Abdulmutallab on a watchlist.”
True, NCTC analysts have access to most agency databases. But with hundreds of names arriving each day, which name does the NCTC select to then begin its search of 16 other agency databases? Especially when the expectation is that each agency has searched its own.
I’ve never been impressed with the “dots” that should have been connected regarding Abdulmutallab. On closer examination, they mostly evaporate. Nor do I consider Christmas Day a security failure. Plane lands safely, terrorist captured, no one hurt; what more do people want?