Feature

Reforming the Reform

Enough with the dots, already. As the story of the Underwear Bomber shows, the problem with U.S. intelligence is that it knows too much -- and understands too little.

Now that the dust has settled a bit from the abortive Christmas Day terrorist attack, and as top officials are being hauled up to Capitol Hill to be raked over the coals, it’s probably a good opportunity to take stock. The incident is said to have thrown various failings of the U.S. intelligence community into stark relief. President Obama himself has spoken of "systemic failures" and vowed to shake things up.

But are the changes he’s proposing really the ones that are needed?

First off, let’s get a few things straight. Most stories about the failed attack presume that the intentions of the would-be bomber, the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, should have been clear to U.S. security officials from the outset. He paid cash for his ticket — a huge "red flag," we’re told. He allegedly purchased a one-way ticket and didn’t check any bags. What’s more, his father had informed the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that Abdulmutallab had become disturbingly radical in his Islamic beliefs. Surely, we’re told, it should have been obvious from these various pieces of information that he was about to try to blow up a plane. Someone didn’t "connect the dots."

Let’s start with paying in cash. Abdulmutallab purchased his ticket at the KLM office in Accra, Ghana. Ghana is not exactly a country awash in credit cards. Until fairly recently as little as 5 percent of the population had bank accounts, and most transactions in the country are still handled in cash. So it’s hard to imagine why paying for a plane ticket in cash there should have set off alarm bells. As for the one-way ticket and the lack of luggage, on closer inspection neither of these seems to be precisely true. Recent reports show that Abdulmutallab actually purchased a round-trip ticket for his trip from Lagos to Detroit, and it also appears now that he took baggage with him on board the plane. (Again, it’s relatively normal these days for people to prefer carry-ons to checked bags, even on longer flights. It’s hard to see how doing that could be turned into a criterion for potential terrorist activities.)

So what about that ominous warning from Abdulmutallab’s dad? This also turns out to be a case of less than meets the eye. There’s actually nothing unusual about people being fingered as terrorists; it happens all the time. Afghans and Iraqis learned a long time ago that accusing someone of harboring designs on the security United States can be a great way of making trouble for a rival. It’s precisely for this reason that U.S. embassies around the world have made a habit of insisting upon corroboration of such claims by additional sources before issuing alerts about possible "terrorists." In the wake of the failed Detroit bombing, one U.S. intelligence official pointed out to the Washington Post that Abdulmutallab’s dad never mentioned anything about his son being a terrorist, "let alone planning an attack." Given the vagueness of the father’s warning, it’s hard to see how any of America’s intelligence agencies might have assumed that the son was a suicide bomber in the making. (Or, as the florid bureaucratese of President Obama’s in-house review would have it: "Hindsight suggests that the evaluation by watchlisting personnel of the information contained in the State cable nominating Mr. Abdulmutallab did not meet the minimum standard of the watchlist.")

So was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano actually in the right when she claimed, as she did initially, that "the system worked"? Certainly not. A man with explosives under his clothing nearly blew up a plane with 300 people on board; that he failed to do so can be credited only to sheer luck (and the presence of mind of an alert passenger). U.S. counterterrorism efforts did nothing to prevent it. The sad tale of the Underwear Bomber does indeed reveal volumes about the state of America’s intelligence community, but for reasons that are quite different from those usually cited in the public discussion. To understand why a low-profile terrorist like Abdulmutallab could slip past the homeland’s guardians virtually undetected, you need go no further than the burgeoning undergrowth of watchlists, databases, and overlapping bureaucracies. The problem isn’t a lack of information; the problem is that there’s too much of it.

Take, for example, the main database of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), one of several new institutions set up as part of the grand overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community mandated by the 9/11 Commission back in 2004. The NCTC database that stores "terrorist entities" now contains some 550,000 entries. And that, in turn, is just one of the 30 or so databases that NCTC staffers have to keep track of. "The garden hose analysts used to drink from prior to 9/11 has become a fire hose," notes Andy Johnson, a national security expert at the Third Way think tank in Washington. He worries that the government is failing to adopt the sorts of sophisticated software tools used by many private companies to manage their own big databases, leaving analysts "hamstrung by clunky, outdated information technology tools incapable of taming the torrents of data." But even if they do, flagging people for paying cash for airplane tickets or having anxious fathers is unlikely to improve the situation much.

Some experts argue that problem of information overload has been exacerbated by the very reform that was designed to make things better. By all accounts the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proven to be an unwieldy bureaucratic giant, ill-equipped to handle the challenge posed by a nimble, ever-evolving enemy. In addition to creating the DHS, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 also superimposed a new layer of bureaucracy, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), onto the existing intelligence establishment. It also created the NCTC, which exists alongside similar counterterrorism shops at the CIA and the DHS. The reason for these bureaucratic redundancies — described as such in the president’s much-ballyhooed review of the lapses leading up to the abortive Christmas Day attack — was to ensure that information would be shared by agencies and funneled to people who could act upon it as needed.

It might have even worked — if the reform had only given these new institutions the power to cut through the clutter. But that hasn’t happened. "In many ways the DNI is weaker than the CIA director," says former CIA officer Mark Lowenthal. "So we created this individual who has lots of authority and responsibility but no power base. The office of the DNI has grown by leaps and bounds to no discernible purpose." Lowenthal says that the Pentagon has bitterly resisted any efforts to give the DNI more muscle, fearing encroachments on its own bureaucratic turf. So the DNI staff (now numbering around 1,300) continues to grow, drawing off experienced professionals from agencies where they might be able to make things happen. Meanwhile, says Andy Johnson, the NCTC lacks "the ability to pull or demand terrorist data (instead of passively receiving it) from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency, and other intelligence collectors." Why it hasn’t received more power to do this isn’t entirely clear.

Intelligence professionals point to another serious issue that’s also been largely passed over in the discussion following of the abortive Christmas Day attack: the critical shortage of seasoned analysts. Ex-CIA official Charles Allen, among others, has noted that there’s little hope of making sense of the floods of data now flowing into U.S. spy agencies without well-trained analysts to make sense of it all. As Lowenthal explains, the end of the Cold War triggered a drastic shrinkage of the intelligence community. Armies of analysts went into retirement. After 9/11 lawmakers once again began showering the spies with cash, and they responded by recruiting an entirely new generation of analysts. "Now we’re at a point where 50 percent of analysts have less than three years of experience," says Lowenthal. "That’s a very scary statistic. You can argue that this is the least experienced intelligence community we’ve had since we first set it up." Needless to say, it doesn’t matter how much information you collect if you don’t have the people who can tell you what it all means.

So far, though, the Obama administration’s response to the real and presumed lapses revealed by the Abdulmutallab case doesn’t address these problems. The president has vowed, for example, to make sure that information gets pushed through the system faster than before; the fixes he’s proposed will ultimately lower the threshold for issuing reports on cases like the warning by Abdulmutallab’s father. The sense of urgency is commendable, but the predictable result is more confusion. The watchlists will continue to mushroom, the databases will multiply, the bureaucracies will grow. The terrorists, for their part, are focused on quality, not quantity. As the saying goes, they only need to get lucky once.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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