Opinion: The thicket fence of intelligence

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.

But a misspelling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s last name appears to have prevented the State Department from realizing he had a valid U.S. visa, too, something which almost certainly would have led to the man’s name being added to the “no-fly” list. The inquiries that follow should focus on determining how such information could automatically trigger a flight ban, and how to make sure that, once such a decision is taken, it gets immediately implemented.

The bad news, however, is that bitter veterans of the pre-9/11 CIA, angry at the demotion of the agency following the double disasters of 9/11 and the Iraq WMD debate, have seized upon the Detroit plot to argue that some of the changes made after the 9/11 Commission’s report should be rolled back. Their particular target is the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), created after 9/11 to ensure all intelligence collected by any U.S. agency — from the State Department to the CIA, from the eavesdropping National Security Agency to the myriad tentacles of the Pentagon — all get synthesized in one place.

The old system had the director of Central Intelligence at the top of the intel food chain, and depended on each agency’s best judgment when it came to sharing intelligence across agency lines. Access to the president varied widely from administration to administration, and these factors, the 9/11 commission confirmed, helped explain why many clues pointing to a plot to attack America were never put together.

Yet the new system, critics say, also failed. It should have prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding any airliner, they say, and on this point, they are correct. The system should have prevented a man with any kind of bomb on him from getting on a plane. But the leap of logic that impugns Obama’s priorities is a very long one.

In fact, the NCTC represents a significant advance over the previous system, as does the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, currently Dennis Blair, who ensures no single agency’s priorities or cultures trump the national interest.

The CIA, in particular, resents the reforms imposed after the systemic failures of the past decade. It lost clout, budget outlays and, ultimately, influence over the direction of policy as a result. But calls by former agency officials to restore CIA to a gatekeeper role in counterterrorism are wrongheaded. The new NCTC/DNI system may have dodged a bullet; if so, the solution is not going back to a system that repeatedly shot the nation in its own foot.

In that respect, says Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor who co-chaired the 9/11 panel, the underwear bomber has “done us a favor.”

“The U.S. government has made significant strides to correct the mistakes evident on Sept. 11,” Kean writes in an op-ed co-authored with former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, his 9/11 panel co-chairman. “But as we've seen from the recent terrorist incidents at Fort Hood and in the skies above Detroit, there is still work to be done.”

Reasonable and unsexy stuff, guys. Now, if we could only get the loud mouths to listen.