Don't blame the CIA for a lack of intel

After the botched Christmas Day attack on Northwest 253, fingers began pointing at American intel organizations over the lack of dot-connecting that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board the plane, even apart from the failure to detect his suicide underwear.  The blame has largely settled on the CIA and the NCTC for mishandling the information that should have led the US to cancel Abdulmutallab’s visa.  Marc Thiessen says that lets too many other people off the hook, and that the problem isn’t so much dot-connecting as a lack of dots to connect.  Thiessen says that we need to go back to a war footing if we want to generate the kind of actionable intel that kept radical Islamists from attacking the US since 9/11:

The report released by the White House Thursday into the failure to stop al Qaeda’s attempt to blow up a passenger plane over Detroit found a number of mistakes were made—including the misspelling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name and the failure to put him on the no-fly list. But the ultimate failure was much larger. According to the New York Times, “The report concluded that the government’s counterterrorism operations had been caught off guard by the sophistication and strength of a Qaeda cell in Yemen, where officials say the plot against the United States originated.”

President Obama laid blame for this failure on the agency he has put under siege since his second day in office: the CIA. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” he declared this week, “it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we had …. That’s not acceptable and I will not tolerate it.” But the President’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, told a different story, acknowledging that we did not, in fact, have all the intelligence we needed: “We did have the information throughout the course of the summer and fall about … plans to carry out attacks,” Brennan said. “We had snippets of information …. We may have had a partial name. We might have had an indication of a Nigerian. But there was nothing that brought it all together.”

The question is: why did we have nothing that brought all the “snippets” of information together? Because within 48 hours after taking office, President Obama eliminated the only tool that would allow the intelligence community to do so: the CIA program to interrogate senior terrorist leaders. Thanks to Obama, America no longer have the capability to detain and question the only individuals who know how the information fits together—the terrorists themselves.

In a sense, we have gone back to the same mistake made by the Clinton administration in the 1990s.  That isn’t the law-enforcement model, which Clinton continued from previous administrations, but the overreliance on signals intelligence over human intelligence.  Essentially, sigint is all that the CIA has left — and they only have that thanks to a reversal from Obama on the NSA programs that generate the intel.  We can only look at the snippets and hope to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle without knowing the number of pieces or the picture it should generate.

Even Obama acknowledged this as “operating with one hand tied behind our back”:

On his second day in office Obama eliminated this capability—and this, in his own advisor’s assessment, handicapped our country in the fight against terror. Indeed, President Obama has admitted as much. Speaking at the CIA soon after shutting down the CIA interrogation program, Obama told officials, “I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back … So yes, you’ve got a harder job. And so do I. And that’s okay.”

It’s not okay, Mr. President. It almost caused another attack.

I’m not sure I agree in terms of this particular attack.  The intel community had enough derogatory information in the system to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa; State didn’t act on it.  There seems to be a lack of intent to act throughout the entire Abdulmutallab chain.  Reportedly, the FBI wanted to interview the “suspect” after he arrived in Detroit, which supports Thiessen’s premise of a wrong-headed approach to counterterrorism but also shows that the intel to prevent the Fruit of the Boom attack existed in sufficient measure before the flight took off from Amsterdam.

More to that point, John Bolton says that the bureaucracy has to go as well:

The problem is often not the intelligence we collect, but assessing its implications. Solving that problem requires not the mind-deadening exercise of achieving bureaucratic consensus, but creating a culture that rewards insight and decisiveness. To create that culture we should abolish the DNI office and NIEs.

Eliminating the DNI should be accompanied by reversing decades of inadequate National Security Council supervision of the intelligence function. The council is an awesome instrument for presidential control over the IC, but only if the national security adviser and others exercise direction and control. Sloughing off responsibility to the bureaucracy embodying the problem is a failure of presidential leadership, and unfortunately gives us exactly the IC we deserve.

Contemporary NIEs (and other IC products) reflect the bureaucracy’s lowest-common-denominator tendencies and should be abolished. Each intelligence agency should be able to place its analysis of data into a competitive marketplace of classified ideas—this will help determine which is the superior product.

Finally, the real debatable issue is often not intelligence or analysis, but the inescapably political judgment of how much risk to our national security we are willing to tolerate. Today, the Obama administration’s level of risk tolerance for potential terrorists and proliferators is far too high. Changing that doesn’t just mean fixing the IC. It means fixing the White House.

That would involve adopting the recommendations of both Bolton and Thiessen.  Obama said that the US was at war with al-Qaeda.  Well, we don’t fight wars with judges and prosecutors.  We fight wars with military and intelligence-gathering organizations that carry out our national will.  Until Obama understands that and stops sending foreign terrorists into a system designed for American citizens to challenge the power of our government, we will have to rely on luck, terrorist incompetence, and Dutch filmmakers to keep the US secure.