How’s that 9/11 Commission reorganization working?

posted at 8:48 am on December 30, 2009 by Ed Morrissey

Now that Barack Obama has finally admitted what everyone else knew — that the intelligence and security systems designed to prevent another 9/11 had failed with Umar Abdulmutallab — it’s time to ask what Obama and Congress plan to do about it.  Eight years after 9/11, we have still not set up our system to “connect the dots” and prevent all attacks from occurring.  We have prevented quite a few, including at least three plots this year, but as has been repeatedly pointed out, we have to get it right every single time, while our enemies only have to get it right once — and they adapt to every failure.

And when the failure is “systemic,” as Obama rightly said yesterday, we have a big, big problem:

The New York Times reported in Wednesday’s editions that the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of al-Qaida there were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack. The newspaper said the information did not include the name of the Nigerian.

Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, is due to present the president with an early report by Thursday, based on recommendations and summaries from across the government.

“There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have — and should have — been pieced together,” Obama said in a brief statement to reporters Tuesday.

“Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged,” Obama said. “The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”

Senior administration officials said the system to protect the nation’s skies was deeply flawed and, even then, the government failed to follow its own directives. They described a breakdown that would have been much worse had Abdulmutallab been successful; an angry Obama called the situation “totally unacceptable.”

“It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on a no-fly list,” Obama said.

Four years ago, pushed by the 9/11 Commission, Congress reorganized the American intelligence community.  The entire idea behind this reorganization was to make it easier to “connect the dots,” share information, reduce interagency feuding and improve coordination, and provide better analysis to decisionmakers to prevent information from slipping through the cracks as it did before 9/11.  The commission recommended, and Congress demanded, that this reorganization take the form of slapping two extra layers of bureaucracy on top of the previous intel agencies, demoting the CIA director, and creating a national clearinghouse for information.

How is that working out?  Not terribly well:

Intelligence officials began laying blame on other agencies.

The CIA said it worked with embassy officials to make sure that Abdulmutallab’s name made it into the government’s database of suspected terrorists and noted his potential extremist connections in Yemen. The CIA said it forwarded that information to the National Counterterrorism Center.

Intelligence officials say they learned the suspect’s name in November, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him.

One U.S. intelligence official said Abdulmutallab’s father didn’t provide sufficient information to earn him a spot on the no-fly list.

In the midst of this finger-pointing and blame-shifting, let’s remember that Abdulmutallab’s father provided the same information to the British, who found it compelling enough to immediately cancel his visa and add him to the no-fly list.  Meanwhile, while Abdulmutallab trained to blow up NW253 and kill hundreds of people, the CIA and the Directorate of National Intelligence to which it reports busied itself with bureaucratic feuding:

Early last week, several long-festering bureaucratic issues that had arisen between Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta had to be settled by national security adviser James L. Jones, through some Solomon-like decisions.

Blair’s four-year-old organization has been trying to establish its role as supervisor of all 16 intelligence agencies, particularly involving the CIA, the former top dog.

The CIA, by a 60-year tradition, has worked directly for every president. The agency usually did the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) — the overnight intelligence report for the chief executive — and the morning Oval Office oral briefing that accompanies it. Normally, the briefer was accompanied by the agency director or a top deputy. Questions from the Oval Office were immediately carried back to CIA headquarters in Langley, where case officers and analysts set out to answer them. The most important link was when it came to the CIA’s covert actions, which the president must authorize.

Now some of those links have been broken. Blair’s outfit prepares the PDB, and he or a deputy attends the Oval Office briefing. Though the PDB is often CIA-written and the briefers are primarily from the agency, the president’s questions are filtered through Blair’s group. The result: CIA personnel have been guarded about their remaining turf.

Does this sound like a streamlined organization, with reduced tensions and better cooperation, ready to defend America?  Or does it sound like a dysfunctional mess, more concerned with turf wars than the war on terror?  Perhaps the remarkable thing is how effective they have managed to be despite the mess Congress made of the intelligence community four years ago.

The criticism of the Obama administration in this instance mainly focused on Janet Napolitano and whether or not she should get fired.  Ironically, she probably has less to do with this failure than anyone in the Obama administration’s security organizations.  The failures that put Abdulmutallab had nothing to do with Homeland Security, and DHS has nothing to do with security at Schipol in Amsterdam.  Napolitano’s egregious sin was to make the Orwellian claim that “the system worked” on Sunday’s talk shows when it had obviously failed.  If her head should roll, it should be because she has utterly destroyed her credibility with the American public — but even that depends on whether she did that on her own, or whether she was ordered to do it by Obama.  Practically speaking, though, either way she will eventually have to go, if for no other reason that Obama’s own statement showed her up … and Obama will probably need someone to fire by the time this is over.

This problem is one Barack Obama can even claim to have inherited, although once again in part from himself.  The real problem lies in the 9/11 Commission’s reorganization of intelligence.  Instead of taking the 16 agencies and merging them no more than two or three organizations and streamlining the flow from analysts to decisionmakers, Congress adopted the bureaucratic approach instead. The very problems they purported to solve, the interagency feuds and lack of data sharing, have reappeared in the exact same form as in 2001.  In fact, the reorganization created turf wars at even higher levels than we had before.  All of this was utterly predictable — and I predicted it repeatedly at Captain’s Quarters from 2004 to 2007.

Most Americans don’t care whether a Democrat or a Republican resides in the White House when it comes to national security; they just want the nation to defend itself properly against attack.  The question of whether heads should roll is really secondary anyway.  The problem isn’t so much the personnel — after all, Hillary Clinton didn’t get on the phone to embassies to instruct them to ignore critical information, and Leon Panetta didn’t deliberately keep dots from connecting.  The big problem is the 9/11 Commission’s insane recommendations and Congress’ leap to implement them.  That reorganization needs to be dismantled, and the intelligence community streamlined properly to rid itself of sclerotic and antagonistic bureaucracies.  We need to reduce barriers to cooperative work, not create more of them, and we should have realized this five years ago and every day since.

Let’s quit worrying about firing people and focus on finally fixing a problem that we’ve only made worse since 9/11, before we run into a terrorist who manages to be competent about blowing himself up.

Update: My friend Tommy Christopher offers a limited defense of Napolitano while noting the foolishness of her statements.


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Do you honestly believe that the information was only sent to CIA. The embassy is a part of STATE it would have sent that information up channel in the STATE system also. So I don’t see where STATE is insulated from taking any blame. Since the buck stops with the head of the Agency that head should roll.

chemman on December 30, 2009 at 11:06 AM

CIA- Headed by a political strategist with no intel experience.

State- Headed by a politician with no foreign policy experience outside of dodging mythical snipers during welcoming ceremonies.

DHS- Headed by a politician being rewarded for early support of the President but with no practical experience in the area of homeland security (outside the nominal experience as governor).

You don’t get professional results when you don’t hire professionals in the first place.

highhopes on December 30, 2009 at 11:18 AM

Those weren’t Democrats, dude, those are truthers, and they really aren’t owned by any political party. Most of them may be made up by the far left, but they are a small minority.

We’re talking mainstream here. High-ranking Republicans. And just the general sentiment overall of the right-wing in the country. At least the ones making the most noise.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:24 AM

Hate to break it to you Tom, but that is a Mainstream Democrat position. 35% of Democrats believe that Bush knew of 9/11 attacks in advance.

barnone on December 30, 2009 at 11:21 AM

Yeah, lets have another “re-organization”. People will get “promoted” (higher pay, more perks).

Here’s a thought, FIRE EVERYONE INVOLVED IN THIS MOST RECENT FARCE!

GarandFan on December 30, 2009 at 11:39 AM

Accept the fact that Nepalitano is an idiot. Live with it. What is even scarrier is that someone made the recommendation that the overhaul be overhauled. Please let us not do that. At least not yet. Not until after the next congressional elections. If you liked what this group did with health care, can you imagine what our security ops would look like if they get another shot at it. I’ll take my chances with what we have until cooler heads are in control (hopefully).

georgeofthedesert on December 30, 2009 at 12:03 PM

Meanwhile, while Abdulmutallab trained to blow up NW253 and kill hundreds of people, the CIA and the Directorate of National Intelligence to which it reports busied itself with bureaucratic feuding:

…and how does the Obama administration address these problems…..
….by telling our intelligence agencies (CIA) that they are being investigated and possibly indicted for doing what they had to in protecting the country.
….remember, the terrorist who tried to blow up flight 253 is not being interrogated by people who know how to get intel from jihadist.He is not being treated as a terrorist but as a common criminal.Pretty much going back to the failed Clinton administrations tactics in dealing with terrorism.
He has lawyered up,thus destroying any chance of getting crucial inside information on how this was carried out and on future attacks.

Baxter Greene on December 30, 2009 at 12:09 PM

Tom_Shipley:

As I said before, this post isn’t that bad, and I probably shouldn’t have posted my initial post in it.

But the article at Politico was just too good to waste, wasn’t it? Why stop to question the author’s assertion that the two events were interchangeable when he’s just given you the most perfect talking point evah, eh?

At the time of Reid’s failed effort, of course, the 9/11 commission was just getting organized, the Patriot Act had only just been passed, it would be another year before the Department of Homeland Security would come into existence, and there was zero basis for questioning the President’s commitments and priorities.

In contrast, President Obama and Nancy Pelosi’s Congress virtually declared war on the CIA. We’ve had the President declassifying and publishing, the most sensitive, inflammatory, info in the CIA files — while refusing to acknowledge their successes and telling telling them not to worry about their expenses when they were sued. We’ve had Pelosi claiming the CIA routinely lies to Congress, in the most flagrantly political ass covering she’s mounted to date.

In the run-up to Christmas, the CIA was being systematically humiliated and dismantled. The Director was denied long standing access to the President, and CIA responsibilities were being shifted to the FBI. Jim Jones was clearly instructed to walk back his own assessment of CIA effectiveness, with Dennis Blair busily trying to consolidate his turf, and the intel community otherwise left to sort out the organizational chart amongst themselves. The Administration’s position on hauling its predecessors into Court or Congressional hearings, seemed to shift on a daily basis — with the President eventually pretending that decision was above his own pay grade — while his Atty General equivocated, contradicted himself, and then announced a “preliminary” investigation, whatever that means, into possible wrongdoing in the Bush Administration. Political?

National Security was compromised and thoroughly politicized before either the Ft. Hood massacre or the Christmas catastrophe. If Obama’s response to the first hadn’t been so stunningly obtuse, perhaps the folks who were already worried about his seriousness might have cut him more slack.

In this case his timing has been far less alarming than the content of his remarks, his bizarre demeanor, his patently disingenuous characterization of the failed bomber as a lone (alleged!) “extremist” (ditto the Ft. Hood shooter) — when we already knew that to be false — the ineptitude, if not incompetence, of his official surrogates, all wrapped up in the usual “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” boilerplate nearly defies belief. That language is more than ironic when Gen. McChrystal was just instructed to eliminate “defeating” the Taliban from his objectives in Afghanistan.

And your reaction? A single minded hue and cry about putative Republican hypocrisy! You have a political mote that requires serious attention.

JM Hanes on December 30, 2009 at 12:15 PM

Accept the fact that Nepalitano is an idiot. Live with it.
georgeofthedesert on December 30, 2009 at 12:03 PM

I’ll accept it but I won’t quietly live with it. Nepolitano really needs to go as part of any reorganization. And not just for the obvious reasons. Effective reorganization or even day-to-day management takes a level of leadership that she does not possess. Put simply she’s part of the problem not a key to reform or even holding what we’ve got until the adults are able to take over.

highhopes on December 30, 2009 at 12:22 PM

There is a bigger reason than turf wars for not sharing intelligence. The methods of intelligence are frequently more valuable than the intelligence. As an example, people at Blenchley Park who had family in Coventry knew that Coventry was about to be devastated by a very large air raid. They refrained from warning their families or anyone else because it would have jeopardized Enigma. Without a secure Enigma, WW 2 might have ended differently and would certainly have lasted longer.

Probably the worst case of not distributing information occurred in 1941. The US war department knew that Japan would attack the US during a three day window that included 12/07/41.They did not know where the attack would occur. This information also came from decoding of radio intercepts. The people in charge in Hawaii, Kimmel and Short were not even aware that we were decoding the Japanese Purple Code. Because of bureaucratic ineptitude, it took two days for the information to reach Admiral Kimmel and General Short that an attack, probably in Alaska, would occur. In the mean time Pearl Harbor happened. Short and Kimmel were disgraced. Kimmel demanded that he be court marshaled. It was denied a court marshal: it was much easier for the bureaucracy to just bury their failure.

Bill Clinton was uninterested in intelligence or in intelligence secrecy. At least while Webster was DCI, Clinton never spoke to Webster or asked questions during the daily brief. Clinton exposed the highest levels of intelligence to a raft of people before taking the time to get them cleared. Two of the people who probably were cleared at the time of their transgressions, John Deutch and Sandy Berger, treated the most highly classified information like comic books.

Much of the CIA has become ossified over the last two decades. Apparently this is especially true of the Operations Directorate, spies, where people get promoted by not making mistakes as a corollary of not doing anything. Which is sort of like voting present. Porter Goss probably could have corrected a lot of problems at CIA and the intelligence community in general had he been given more time and support instead of being cut off at the knees by Congress. The fact that there are a large number of intelligence agencies some of which are duplicative is not all bad. Even Obama mouths that competition is good, even though he doesn’t know what it means. Disagreements should be highlighted not banished as is happening now. As Ed points out, we had too much bureacracy even before we got the NIC. We probably have a few too many agencies as well but not the large number suggested by Ed.

In the present case some and maybe all the intelligence is at very low level. The fact that the man was denounced by his father is a privacy issue and it barely reaches any sort of classification. The current public information that intelligence about the “Nigerian” was collected over three months from chatter indicates either that making that information public now is a security violation and or it wasn’t very highly classified to begin with.

Even the British are not as politically correct as we are. The denunciations should have been enough to revoke his visa and put him at least temporarily on a no fly list. It should also automatically bring up any related intelligence.

burt on December 30, 2009 at 12:32 PM

I think the TSA should be handled by the military.

PattyJ on December 30, 2009 at 12:46 PM

There is a bigger reason than turf wars for not sharing intelligence. The methods of intelligence are frequently more valuable than the intelligence. As an example, people at Blenchley Park who had family in Coventry knew that Coventry was about to be devastated by a very large air raid. They refrained from warning their families or anyone else because it would have jeopardized Enigma. Without a secure Enigma, WW 2 might have ended differently and would certainly have lasted longer.

burt on December 30, 2009 at 12:32 PM

What methods of intelligence gathering are at risk in the current GWOT that would prevent a competent way of discerning who should be on the no-fly list? It seems evident that we don’t have covert operations going on that would tag potential terrorists when a wannabe, turned in by his dad, doesn’t even register with American authorities as an issue! The hard bitter truth is that there is no real intelligence gathering going on with this administration.

As to Blenchley Park (where compromise of methods would have been critical) we should be happy that the bombing of Conventry happened in a different era. These days, Churchill and the British government would have used the time to figure out a way to blame the Chamberlain government for bombings.

highhopes on December 30, 2009 at 1:03 PM

we have to get it right every single time, while our enemies only have to get it right once — and they adapt to every failure.

But we also adapt to our failures. We learn from them.

Well, we did, anyway, before the current administration took charge.

UltimateBob on December 30, 2009 at 1:33 PM

Especially when he’s right.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:41 AM

You know, you just stated the whole problem with liberals (speaking of yourself in that post): that neurotic and sometimes psychopathic NEED to be ‘right’.

Speaking for myself, I don’t claim any moral high ground. I imagine many of my fellow conservatives don’t hold a personal need to be ‘right’, but that’s them.

I, again of myself, hold certain values. I address them, and post accordingly. I have gotten myself in Dutch with liberals most often but also with conservatives. I simply say what I believe, right or wrong.

Unlike you, apparently, and unlike most libs, I have no NEED to be ‘right’. You and your kind most often, in my experience, do have that need.

Liam on December 30, 2009 at 1:40 PM

Oh for Heavens’s Sake.

Ed, please stop. You guys are politicizing this attack. You care more about bashing Obama than about a solution. Spending your time digging up any tidbit that might be related then hammering Obama over it.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:16 AM

You are a perfect example of why schoolchidren should not have such a long Winter vacation…

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:40 PM

We’re talking mainstream here. High-ranking Republicans. And just the general sentiment overall of the right-wing in the country. At least the ones making the most noise.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:24 AM

It has been my experience that people generally make noise when getting fooked…

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:43 PM

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:40 PM

Libs have a need to be right. It’s seriously neurotic, and oftentimes psychopathic. Libes seem to hunger to justify themselves no matter what which, as I can see, is why they keep changing their own rules. Plus all the slanders and accusations an/or assertions without a shred of proof.

Then reverting to bloggers, of all people, for ‘evidence’.

On and on, as you already know.

Liam on December 30, 2009 at 1:46 PM

I assume this is Cheney, but whoever said this is an idiot.

Bush had an even MORE low-key response to a failed attempt to blow up an airliner.

This is such a transparent case of taking facts and spinning to meet a preconceived political narrative.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:29 AM

There was nothing low-key about Bush’s response. We were constantly on a heightened alert in those days–unlike now, when Onutless hasn’t changed the threat-level even…Why we weren’t even callin 911 a “man-made disaster” yet…

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:48 PM

But the overall response by HotAir and the right has been to politicize first, ask questions later.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:31 AM

We have been asking “Why and WTF???” since the November elections…Onutless made it political..

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:51 PM

You guys have shown yourselves to be the petty, vindictive partisans that you are with this latest attack on Obama and his administration.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:38 AM

Good grief–go get some cheeze to go with your whine–itsn’t it time for your nap, anyway?

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:56 PM

Yes, he’s responsible. But taking this instant to claim he doesn’t think terrorism is a real threat, that he’s weak, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, blah, blah, blah is politicizing it. And the right have been repeating those lines ad nauseam since Christmas.

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:41 AM

Yeah, that shout out the day of the Fort Hood shooting showed how much he thought terrorism was important–or of the lives lost by our servicepeople/American citizens that day…Please show me that Onutless knows what he is doing–show me how he is strong…Give me one…solid..fact…

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 2:01 PM

Good grief–go get some cheeze to go with your whine–itsn’t it time for your nap, anyway?

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 1:56 PM

LOL!

AsianGirlInTights on December 30, 2009 at 2:04 PM

Tom_Shipley on December 30, 2009 at 9:41 AM

A Christmas Eve vote on Obummer healthscare was held because it was such an emergency!!!!

It took Obummer four months to talk to McCrystal and three days to say anything about this latest terrorist attempt.

Why do you think people say he is weak on defense and terrorism?

ladyingray on December 30, 2009 at 2:07 PM

Hey AGIT–how are you? Haven’t seen you around lately!

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 2:10 PM

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 2:10 PM

Hi loving! I’m well. I hope you had a Merry Christmas!

AsianGirlInTights on December 30, 2009 at 2:35 PM

AsianGirlInTights
Thanks, yes I did…hope you did too, glad to see you back posting here…

lovingmyUSA on December 30, 2009 at 2:38 PM

Kinda makes one wonder how much of the CIA’s “failure to act” is simple payback for their earlier (and ongoing) demonization from this bunch of oxygen thieves.

PJ Emeritus on December 30, 2009 at 4:47 PM

Let’s quit worrying about firing people and focus on finally fixing a problem that we’ve only made worse since 9/11, before we run into a terrorist who manages to be competent about blowing himself up.

What’s needed is to go back to pre-Church Committee and pre-Rockefeller Commission Intel.

BDU-33 on December 30, 2009 at 11:11 PM

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