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.