Friday, May 21, 2010

No, Actually, The System Didn't Work

So says the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, after studying the Christmas Day bombing attempt:

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has released an unclassified summary of its investigation into the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009. The committee's bottom line is that the system did not work.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been prevented from boarding Flight 253, but there were "a series of human errors, technical problems, systemic obstacles, analytical misjudgments, and competing priorities" that enabled Abdulmutallab "to travel to the United States on December 25, 2009."

The committee outlines "fourteen specific points of failure," but two are particular worrisome. A third and equally troubling point of failure was also identified by Senators Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr in their addendum to the report.

First, even though Abdulmutallab's father walked into a U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, and told officials that his son may be a terrorist, Abuldmutallab wasn't watchlisted. Why? The committee offers this explanation:

Although U.S.  Embassy officials in Abuja recommended that Abdulmutallab be placed on the No Fly List, the determination was made at CIA Headquarters and at the NCTC [note: National Counterterrorism Center] Watchlisting Office that there was only sufficient derogatory information to enter Abdulmutallab's information in the general "Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment" (TIDE) database, but not sufficient derogatory information to place him on any of the watchlists. Because of the language of the watchlisting standard, the manner in which it was being interpreted at the time, or both, analysts responsible for making the watchlisting determination did not believe they had the ability to give additional weight to significant pieces of information from the field, such as the report that resulted from the meeting with Abdulmutallab's father.

So, State Department officials thought Abdulmutallab should be added to the watchlist, which would have prevented him from boarding Flight 253, but other officials at the CIA and NCTC decided against it. That was a significant misjudgment, to say the least.

The report goes on...

This brings us to the second point. The committee found:

Analysts' competing priorities contributed to the failure of the Intelligence Community to identify Abdulmutallab as a potential threat. Prior to the 12/25 plot, counterterrorism analysts at NCTC, CIA, and NSA were focused on the threat of terrorist attacks in Yemen, but were not focused on the possibility of AQAP attacks against the U.S. homeland. These other priorities contributed to the failure of analysts to recognize and collate the several pieces of intelligence reporting that mentioned Abdulmutallab.

Again, this is remarkably bad. These agencies still do not understand the basics of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's strategy. Al Qaeda's chief has worked hard to fold so called "local" jihadist groups into the al Qaeda network. The strategy has worked.

And finally...

Finally, we come to the third particularly noteworthy point of failure, which was identified by Senators Chambliss and Burr in their "Additional Views." The senators argue that in the wake of the September 11 attacks "several investigations" concluded that intelligence stove piping and the like were serious problems. Consequently, the senators write, the NCTC "was created to be the central knowledge bank for all terrorism related information" and is therefore "responsible and accountable for all terrorism related intelligence analysis."

That is not how NCTC sees itself, however. The senators write (footnotes omitted): 

Instead, the Committee found in this review that no one agency believes its analysts are responsible for tracking and identifying all terrorist threats, essentially the same problem identified six years ago by the 9/11 Commission, which found "the intelligence community's confederated structure left open the question of who was really in charge of the entire U.S. intelligence effort" to combat terrorism.  

Elsewhere in the report the Committee found that having multiple agencies working to counter the terrorist threat is beneficial in some ways. That is certainly true, but the entirety of the Committee's report makes it clear that no one agency in the U.S. government pulled together all of the available information on Abdulmutallab, even though the NCTC was specifically built to do so.

And yet, despite all this, we see the Obama administration continue to insist that the system works, so they're not going to bother with changing anything.

Whose side are they on, anyway?

I'm not sure I want to know the answer to that question.

There's my two cents.

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