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.

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.