Connect to share and comment

Opinion: The thicket fence of intelligence

On the underwear bomber, the new US intelligence system failed. But it's still better than the old one.

A passenger is reflected in a series of mirrors at Logan International Airport in Boston, Mass., Jan. 5, 2010. Airlines will report monthly traffic figures that are expected to suggest continued improvement in revenue trends, but will also capture the effects of the Christmas-day attempted suicide bombing of a Northwest flight over Detroit, which prompted long security delays at airports around the world. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

LONDON, U.K. — In the weeks since the attempted “underwear bombing” of a Northwest airliner over Detroit, there has been much talk of what needs to be done to correct what President Obama described as “systemic failures” that allowed a Nigerian national whose family had gone so far as to flag his radical views to American officials to board an airliner with a bomb.

Many have pointed to a failure to “connect the dots” on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies, and so far as it goes, that’s basically a good description of what went wrong for those who don’t pay much attention to our intelligence system. The calls for reform since have broken down into three basic categories:

  1. Those who see even more intrusive weapon detection technology, including the controversial “body scanners” capable of producing an image of what is under someone’s clothing (or, as the New Republic helpfully pointed out, even when inserted into certain, shall we say, body cavities.) The “naked grandmother” debate invariably gave this particular school of thought (and its opponents) a much bigger slice of our limited national attention span than it probably deserves due to the wonderful fodder it offers for cable television producers and bloggers.
  2. Those, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who jumped up quickly to portray this as an example of the incompetence of the Democratic administration that replaced him, as if a botched underwear attack in Detroit would even rank in the Bush administration’s “Top 50” list of self-inflicted national disasters.
  3. Those who are seizing upon the attempted attack to reopen far deeper, arcane yet more important arguments about the organization of the vast constellation of bureaucracies that constitute America’s intelligence, counterterrorism and homeland security communities.

This last debate, raging primarily in print and in the more erudite corners of the blogosphere, invariably fails to excite the same level of public excitement as the specter of Transportation Security Administration screeners putting nude shots of the Swedish Olympic ski team on their Facebook pages.

Yet it’s the latter debate that really matters, and in that respect there is both good news and bad news to report. The good news, at least judging by the initial report delivered by President Obama about the circumstances of the attack, suggests that human error and not bureaucratic dysfunction probably played the largest role in the failure to prevent the would-be bomber from getting on an aircraft.

Going back to the “connect-the-dots” thesis, all the necessary “dots” in this case existed in the form of intelligence collected by U.S. and allied services. The agencies involved, broadly speaking, appear to have done what they were supposed to do with the information passed on by the Nigerian’s father to the U.S. embassy about his son’s radicalization.