The CIA has pointed to the Christmas Day terrorist incident as evidence that the post-9/11 intelligence reform has failed. That self-serving diagnosis couldn't be further from the truth.
In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, some U.S. intelligence officials are sharpening their knives, planning to lay the blame for the failure to detect this plot at the feet of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). President Barack Obama "knows where to look" when assessing blame for the government’s inability to connect the dots prior to the attack, claimed one anonymous intelligence official quoted in the Washington Post. In particular, the CIA, which opposed the 2004 reorganization that transferred some of the agency’s responsibilities to the ODNI and the NCTC, "has barely restrained itself from shouting, ‘We told you so,’" the Post reported.
This chest-thumping is not surprising. The CIA has felt vastly underappreciated since 9/11, having been faulted by senior officials and blue-ribbon commissions both for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and the intelligence community’s inaccurate prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities. Some CIA loyalists clearly relished the opportunity to affix blame to another part of the intelligence community after the Christmas attack.
But the charge that we would be better off without the ODNI and the NCTC is more than self-serving — it is also wrong, and dangerously so. The real lesson from the failure to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off a U.S.-bound flight is that intelligence reform has not gone far enough. Rather than restoring the CIA to its pre-9/11 role as king of the hill in the intelligence community, the Obama administration should further empower the NCTC, in particular by bolstering its analytical and technological capabilities so that it can more effectively lead the government’s counterterrorism intelligence efforts.
As last Thursday’s White House report on the Christmas attack rightly asserts, the intelligence community has become much better at sharing information since 9/11, in part due to new laws and regulations that facilitate it. What allowed the Christmas attack to occur was not a failure of information sharing, but a failure to analyze and integrate available information. The White House report acknowledges that all of the information collected by intelligence agencies about Abdulmutallab and his association with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was accessible to analysts at both the NCTC and the CIA prior to the Christmas attack. However, nobody put the pieces together that he represented an imminent threat to the United States.
In 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the formation of the NCTC in part to solve this very problem. Having found that the government missed signals about the 9/11 attacks because agencies failed to share key pieces of information, the commission argued that it was essential to create a body that would lead government-wide efforts to analyze terrorism intelligence, direct intelligence collection by other agencies, and plan counterterrorism operations. Congress agreed, enacting intelligence reform legislation in 2004 that made the NCTC the "primary organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence" pertaining to terrorism.
Despite the failure to connect the dots on the Christmas attack, the NCTC has actually performed quite well during its five years of operation. Backed by the ODNI and the White House, it has reduced the stovepiping of intelligence efforts and planned many successful counterterrorism operations. From a bureaucratic standpoint, one of the NCTC’s greatest strengths is the nature of its workforce: Some 60 percent of its personnel are detailed to the center from other agencies. This means that NCTC officials tend to be less turf-conscious than officials in the rest of the intelligence community. Equally important, they have developed close ties to other agencies, facilitating interagency collaboration.
The White House’s review makes clear that the NCTC shares some of the blame for the Abdulmutallab intelligence failure. But that is no reason to believe that the plot would have been uncovered if the NCTC did not exist. We know that the intelligence community failed both in sharing and integrating information before 9/11. We also know that the CIA, which had chief responsibility for analyzing terrorism intelligence from all sources before 2004, has a history of protecting its own turf, complicating interagency cooperation.
Moreover, the CIA has another counterterrorism responsibility that is critically important and extremely challenging: the collection of human intelligence on al Qaeda. The CIA has made tremendous progress in this mission since 9/11, but the recent suicide bombing by an al Qaeda double agent at a CIA base in Afghanistan underscores the continued difficulty of penetrating the terrorist organization and the need for the CIA to devote as much attention as possible to this task. If the CIA once again assumed chief responsibility for analyzing and integrating intelligence from all sources, it would likely suffer from the same problem of divided attention that existed prior to the 2004 reorganization.
But this is not to say that the status quo is acceptable — far from it. The White House’s review of the Christmas attack reveals that the reforms proposed by the 9/11 Commission have not been fully implemented. In discussing how the NCTC should operate in a hypothetical case, the 9/11 Commission described the new agency’s role as tasking collection requirements and being accountable for tracking progress on the case. Yet lines of responsibility have remained unclear since the NCTC was formed. Obama’s order that the intelligence community assign specific responsibility for investigating all leads is therefore a necessary corrective. It will also be necessary, as Obama directed, for intelligence reports involving threats to be distributed more rapidly and widely.
Yet the most critical and potentially transformative work is yet to come. Obama has asked Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board to examine ways to improve the processing and integration of intelligence information. As the Christmas attack shows, this challenge should be the focus of the next phase of intelligence reform. Ironically, this challenge has been made greater by the marked improvements in intelligence collection and sharing since 9/11: The intelligence community is now passing along so much information that the NCTC’s staff of roughly 500 people cannot thoroughly digest and assess all of it.
Ultimately, the Christmas attack presents an opportunity for Obama to put his own stamp on intelligence reform. As the Obama administration prepared to take office in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel commented, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Now, the administration needs to use the sense of crisis generated by the near miss on Christmas to give the NCTC the authority, resources, and technology necessary to inventory, analyze, and act on all of the information that washes through the intelligence system.