Transparency: Man reviewing intel center also created and ran it

In the wake of the botched terror attack on Christmas Day, Barack Obama promised a thorough investigation into why American intelligence did not “connect the dots,” allowing Umar Abdulmutallab to board a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit.  The focus will fall in large part on the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the use of watch lists that are supposed to prevent terrorists from boarding flights and entering the country.  However, the man chosen to run the probe, John Brennan, is also the man who designed the watch-list system and ran the NCTC:

President Barack Obama promised a “thorough review” of the government’s terrorist watch-list system after a Nigerian man reported to U.S. government officials by his father to have radicalized and gone missing last month was allowed to board a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit that he later tried to blow up without any additional security screening.

Yet the individual Obama has chosen to lead the review, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, served for 35 years in the CIA, helped design the current watch-list system and served as interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center, whose role is under review.

In the three years before joining the Obama administration, Brennan was president and CEO of The Analysis Corp., an intelligence contracting firm that worked closely with the National Counterterrorism Center and other U.S. government intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies on developing terrorism watch-lists. …

According to financial disclosures forms released by the White House, Brennan served as president and CEO of TAC from November 2005 until January 2009, when Obama named him to the White House terrorism and homeland security job. The disclosures show that Brennan reported earning a $783,000 annual salary from The Analysis Corp. in 2008.

The forms also show that Brennan sat on the board of directors for TAC’s parent company, Global Strategic Group, from August 2007 until January 2009. Brennan’s ties to the system he is now charged with reviewing could raise questions about the independence of Obama’s review. One former senior intelligence official told POLITICO it is “unsavory to see Obama put Brennan in charge of a review of this matter since it is possible that NCTC or TAC could have failed in their responsibilities.”

Why not just hire TAC to review itself?  That would follow the ACORN example, at least.  Having the man who ran and designed the system as the leader of an investigation by definition makes it anything but “independent”.  If the issue is a design problem in the NCTC or watch-list system, how likely will Brennan be to highlight those kind of failures?  If the probe finds that the problem was caused by human error, the people singled out for criticism will point fingers right back at NCTC and the watch-list systems and the people who built both, including Brennan, and none of them will have more credibility than the other.

CBS reports that design issues may well be at the heart of it — or at least organizational issues (via Geoff A):

As to why Abdulmutallab wasn’t on a no-fly list, even though his father had reported his radicalization, and he’d been turned down for a British visa, the official said that’s because the information still isn’t getting to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment or TIDE list.

The TIDE issue has become a “he said, she said “among various government agencies. My colleague Marc Ambinder reported that, according to one of his sources, the State Department thought NCTC was checking visas against the TIDE list, and NCTC thought that State was doing the checking.

“You’d be shocked how many times we still come up with this, ‘Gee I thought you were doing it,'” my source added. “Initially, our reports were that he was on no-fly list. Obviously that was wrong. This is clearly a failure of the system.”

For instance, he asks rhetorically, “Why – if he was denied British visa – why wasn’t that shared with us? I don’t know.”

That should be prompting a review from people disconnected from the design and management processes with both the NCTC and watch lists — if the administration is truly interested in an independent investigation.  The decision by the White House to use Brennan is inexplicable.  After all, both systems were built before Obama took office; he has no particular interest in protecting it if they don’t work properly.  Obama appointed Brennan to his current position, so failures in Brennan’s efforts might look bad for the appointment, but that would hardly be the worst criticism Obama has endured this year.  In fact, it wouldn’t be the worst criticism he took for the Brennan appointment itself.

Normally, this would prompt Congress to start its own probe, consonant with its oversight responsibilities over executive branch functions.  The history there, though, hardly gives one confidence in a Congressional probe, even if Harry Reid and/or Nancy Pelosi allowed one.  Let’s not forget that Congress created a similar conflict of interest in appointing Jamie Gorelick to the 9/11 Commission, which ended up reviewing Gorelick’s involvement in intensifying barriers between law-enforcement and intelligence agencies that created the same kind of miscommunication that allowed Abdulmutallab to board Northwest 253 on Christmas.

Brennan is, by most accounts, a fine public servant — but that doesn’t mean he should be investigating his own work while the White House passes it off as independent.  That would not be fair to the people who will be scrutinized by this probe, and ultimately, unfair to Brennan himself.  Obama should reconsider this decision so that the American people can have some confidence in this critical investigation.