Failing to connect the dots

By Tim Starks, CQ Staff

“Desperately not  connecting the plots”-

The lesson of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner approaching Detroit, it turns out, is that not only was airport security lax, but also intelligence analysts failed to interpret and pursue the signals that warned of a potential terrorist disaster.

That conclusion of President Obama’s rapid-fire investigation over the past two weeks was somewhat unexpected, but it was predictable if you stopped to think about it. Ever since Congress overhauled the intelligence community five years ago in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, all terrorist information has been flowing into the National Counterterrorism Center, which was set up to serve as a clearinghouse and analytical forum for such information. It is estimated that the NCTC receives some 12,000 pieces of information a day, each of which must be assessed and then fit into the larger patterns of various terrorist threats.

A significant percentage of the people serving in the intelligence community arrived in their jobs after the 2001 attacks, are relatively inexperienced in terrorism analysis, and lack proficiency in relevant foreign languages such as Arabic, Pashtu and Urdu.

To top it off, the director of national intelligence has never held strict authority over all intelligence agenciesbecause he doesn’t completely control their budgets. As a result, the agencies still enjoy a large degree of autonomy.

“After billions of dollars spent, after a totally reorganized intelligence community, we still don’t have ability to connect data,” Michael Swetnam, a former CIA official and naval intelligence officer, said in remarks that summed up sentiments across the capital.

Solving such shortcomings, if indeed they can be solved, is now a major challenge for Obama. Thanks to the Christmas Day attack — thwarted by a faulty bomb and alert passengers and crew members on the plane — it is not a problem he inherited from the Bush administration. The inability of the intelligence community to uncover the matrix of a foreign threat is also a challenge that dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and every president since has experienced the embarrassment of a major intelligence failure.

A grim-faced Obama told a national television audience last week that he has ordered a series of steps, including the wider distribution of intelligence reports and the development of teams devoted to following leads on terrorists. Intelligence officials, or at least those in the White House, have publicly apologized for their latest lapse.

“I told the president today I let him down,” John O. Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, said last week. “And I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team.”

But many intelligence experts say that if Brennan is to do better, he may have to go beyond the steps Obama has ordered. These experts point out that the spy community’s failure to prevent the attempted bombing include some factors that Obama did not mention, among them the overwhelming volume of information that the nation’s spy masters must process each day and their woeful shortage of analytical expertise.

So they are strongly urging additional steps, such as giving more authority to the director of national intelligence to bring together the intelligence community in the way that the independent Sept. 11 commission once envisioned — a move that would require Congress to pass new legislation. According to the way the job is currently configured, the intelligence director is supposed to coordinate intelligence collection and integrate the findings of the spy community’s various branches. Yet under the law that Congress passed in late 2004, the DNI lacks the authority to compel the agencies to do anything they don’t want to do.

These experts also recommend the use of enhanced technology that could coordinate sharing among the spy community’s various computer systems and pinpoint potential red flags. And they suggest more basic changes, such as improved training for analysts and a stronger focus on changing the community’s culture of fragmentation.

Congress may have more ideas about what went wrong and how to fix it once it completes its own series of investigations.

Even so, all those measures still might not be enough to prevent another terrorist attack inside the United States. If Brennan sticks around long enough in his post, there is a good chance he will let down his president again. Such is the nasty business of espionage and terrorism. Even if everything is just right, as first-rate spy services such as those in Israel have learned, a resourceful and determined enemy can still breach your defenses and score a devastating success.

The National Counterterrorism Center, which was created after the 2001 attacks to synthesize disparate spy agency data and is a focal point of what went wrong on Christmas Day, could yet again miss vital clues hidden in the mountains of information that the center processes daily.

“You could triple the size of the NCTC and still have the same problem,” said Mark Lowenthal, who served as vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2002 to 2005. “We’re in a war. I don’t want to sound cold about this, but casualties occur in wars. The idea that you can fight a campaign and never suffer consequences is delusory.”

Cheap Shots

“Connecting the dots” is one of those tropes that make counterterrorism sound deceptively simple. But in the murky world of intelligence gathering, the ability to detect a real terrorist threat to the United States within the thousands of fragments of information that flow into the nation’s intelligence agencies each day is extraordinarily difficult.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, has pulled no punches in criticizing the intelligence community’s failures to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding the Detroit-bound flight. But unlike other lawmakers with less knowledge about intelligence matters, she also gives the nation’s spy services a lot of credit for foiling a number of terrorist plots in 2009.

Intelligence failures “have to be balanced against the intelligence success; the successes are forgotten,” she said. “The long knives are out, and that bothers me.”

Before overreacting to the shortcomings of the intelligence agencies, one might consider what Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born Middle East expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has to say about the difficulties involved in blunting terrorist threats. Phares cautions that in the war the United States is now fighting, terrorist groups have the upper hand. As U.S. officials try to find ways to prevent a recurrence of the last attack, he notes, groups such as al Qaeda are constantly probing for new weaknesses.

“They control the timing of their operations against U.S. national security and the type of weapon they wish to use,” Phares said. “In classical warfare against states but also against guerrillas, our defense can somewhat project the forthcoming moves. In the case of war with jihadi terror organizations such as al Qaeda, this capacity of projection is reduced.”

Lowenthal also blames Obama for playing down the difficulties that intelligence agencies face and for overreacting by suggesting that absolute safety is attainable with the implementation of addition measures.

“For the president to be as harsh as he was is either unfair or shows no understanding of the problem that his intelligence community has,” said Lowenthal. “That’s the standard politicians and some in the media have put forward.”

Lowenthal, now president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, continued: “He has created a standard where the next time something like this happens, he’s going to overreact again.”

Any U.S. overreaction to an attempted terrorist attack ultimately helps al Qaeda achieve its aims of disrupting normal life inside the United States, experts say. Swetnam, who now heads the centrist Potomac Institute for Public Policy, notes that despite the failure of Abdulmutallab’s bomb to explode, al Qaeda may yet emerge as the victor from the Christmas bombing attempt if the result is expensive and clunky new security enhancements at U.S. airports. Something similar happened after Richard Reid tried to detonate a bomb concealed in his shoe in 2001, leading to the requirement that air travelers remove their shoes before being screened.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers such as Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have concerns that the administration’s intention to expand terrorist watch lists could mean a return to the days when too many names were added haphazardly, leading to inaccuracies and hassles for innocent citizens, among other things.

Many experts on terrorism, intelligence and the Middle East note that it is a uniquely American trait to see a problem such as terrorism and expect it to be fixed. In the real world, these experts says, such fixes are rarely possible.

“Whatever you think about the current system, it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get,” said Steven Simon, a member of President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and now a Middle East expert at theCouncil on Foreign Relations.

A History of Missing Signals

The failures that came to light after the foiled bombing attempt are shortcomings that the intelligence community has struggled with ever since the earliest days of World War II.

Before the creation of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, the U.S. military in 1941 had obtained fragments of intelligence about how Japan might attack. But even then, bureaucratic rivalries prevented anyone from getting all the information when it was needed, and there was difficulty gleaning the most important information from what was available. The result was a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that many believed could have been prevented.

Never has the United States succeeded in fully unifying all of its intelligence efforts, the goal of the post-Sept. 11 overhaul. The CIA’s director prior to 2004 carried the joint title of director of central intelligence, meaning he coordinated all intelligence from the nation’s disparate spy agencies. But many of the spy shops were housed under the Pentagon, where the Defense secretary was effectively the “boss” at those agencies.

Today, as a result of the 2004 intelligence overhaul prompted by the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendations, the newly created director of national intelligence is the official leader of the intelligence community, but the Pentagon still controls approximately 80 percent of the spy agency budgets. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his allies in Congress succeeded in watering down the DNI’s powers when the legislative overhaul made its way through Congress.

A February 2008 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the authorities of the DNI revealed some of the limitations of the office’s powers. Those limitations may not have had a direct role in the failures that enabled the Christmas bombing attempt, but broadly, they mean there is no one short of the president who can compel the intelligence community to act as an integrated whole.

Then-DNI Michael McConnell described where his authority and duties fell on a scale of increasing power, starting with an overseer, such as a presidential “czar,” whose authority is limited to persuasion, to a coordinator, an integrator of programs and a director. “I currently have the title of director,” McConnell testified, “but the authorities created in statute and executive order put me more in the middle of that range of options — coordinator and integrator — rather than director with directive authority.”

There are also questions of budget authority. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, said the law gives the director “significant power to move resources from one intelligence agency to another, but if bureaucratic roadblocks cause every transfer to take six months, then maybe we haven’t done that at all, and at least we need to discuss about that.”

Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism official, has said the information-hoarding and turf wars that afflicted the intelligence community before Sept. 11 were not to blame in the Christmas Day incident. Nonetheless, a shadow skirmish has played out in the media, with some intelligence officials blaming the NCTC for not processing the information given to it by other intelligence agencies and others blaming agencies such as the CIA for not passing along some of the information they possessed.

Swetnam says intelligence agencies are still reluctant to release information to the broader community for fear of losing credit for their accomplishments as the data mingles with other bits of information.

But few consider what transpired on Christmas Day as a failure to collect enough information. In fact, the opposite might be true: Spy agencies are collecting mountains of data, creating confusion about how to distinguish important details from unimportant ones.

“If you’re doing one jigsaw puzzle and miss a piece, that’s a problem,” said Lowenthal. “What if you’re doing 10 jigsaw puzzles at once, or 50 jigsaw puzzles at once? We are spread out across this very large enterprise, with lots of different things in motion.”

Making matters worse, the current workforce of intelligence analysts suffers from a distinct shortage of expertise in sorting out all that information. A major percentage of the intelligence community joined after 2001, driven in large measure by the need to beef up personnel after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“To some extent, you’ve got a very young analytical corps in the intelligence community,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. “We’re not at the point where we were during the Cold War, where he had numerous seasoned veterans with scar tissue and who spoke Russian fluently.”

No Shortage of Remedies

It may take months for the executive branch and Congress to work out what to do about all of the intelligence community’s shortcomings that have surfaced since the Christmas Day bombing attempt. But ideas are percolating.

The most dramatic would be to revisit the 2004 intelligence overhaul law. Members and staff of the Sept. 11commission have highlighted how lack of budgetary control contributes to a less-well-coordinated community.

“It is elemental that the DNI and NCTC — is less capable of integrating intelligence than it would be if other agencies depended on it for funding,” said John Farmer, the former senior counsel to the commission.

Andy Johnson, a former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee who now heads the national security program at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, says there is no mandatory requirement in statute that the intelligence agencies share information with the NCTC.

Feinstein and Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, say they see no need to bolster the DNI’s authority, although Feinstein says she will examine the question.

Meanwhile, Texas Republican William M. “Mac” Thornberry, a senior member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels, says the president can expand or contract the DNI’s authority. For example, in a recent DNI/CIA feud over station chiefs abroad, the administration sided with the CIA’s right to appoint those officials — a move widely seen as a blow to the DNI’s standing. Thornberry said Congress, soon after passage of the intelligence overhaul law, conducted hearings to make sure the reorganization was effective. Since then, however, lawmakers have dissolved into partisan feuding over intelligence matters.

Another potential solution might involve better sharing and analysis of information through the use of technology. Swetnam suggests requirements that all intelligence community information be placed online internally.

“There is software that runs through all of this data regularly to combine all these facts and can pump out an alert that there is something to be concerned about,” said Washington Democrat Adam Smith, another member of the Intelligence and Armed Services panels. He says such technology is worth exploring.

Some intelligence experts believe that when it comes to new technology, the relative youth of the intelligence community’s workforce is an advantage. Lowenthal says the upside to a young workforce is that its members are more likely to embrace information sharing, having grown up in an era in which social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter are part of their daily lives. That gives an institutional focus on information sharing a better chance of developing as more and more young employees join the workforce.

Still, Johnson notes, Congress should be asking whether counterterrorism personnel need additional training to recognize indicators that ought to raise red flags and prompt action, such as the fact that Abdulmutallab purchased a one-way ticket in cash and didn’t check any luggage. Feinstein also says the concerns that Abdulmutallab’s father raised about his son with U.S. officials should have triggered more suspicions on the part of intelligence analysts. She notes that the activities of several terrorists recently were brought to light with the aid of information from relatives, which should have elevated the importance of what Abdulmutallab’s father said about his son.

But fixing the intelligence community’s gaps in information sharing and data analysis can’t be the only option on the plate, intelligence experts and lawmakers say. There is a need still to boost airport security, said Cilluffo: “It’s not an either/or proposition.”

Republicans raise another intelligence problem, which they say has grown out of the Obama administration’s decision to investigate CIA interrogators who may have violated laws against torture. That investigation, says Thornberry, has had a chilling effect on collection efforts by discouraging the willingness of intelligence agents in the field to take risks that could net better information.

Republicans have also questioned whether a kind of “political correctness” led to the failure to share information within the federal government about Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim accused of killing 13 and wounding 30 at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas on Nov. 5.

Meanwhile, Middle East experts such as Phares are urging broader approaches to counter the terrorist threat, such as stronger efforts to counter radicalization. Feinstein says the administration needs to re-examine its visa and watch list procedures in light of Abdulmutallab’s ability to board a U.S.-bound aircraft in Amsterdam despite all the warning signals.

The list goes on, touching on everything from whether to expand the use of whole-body scanning technology to how to prosecute terrorism suspects.

In almost every case, each proposal that Congress or the administration addresses will be one it has already confronted before in some way. As such, they are likely to run into all the usual hurdles they have run into in the past: turf battles, fragmented efforts, partisan fighting and more.

And that means it could take White House leadership to get anything done, said James A. Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The ball is mainly in the administration’s court,” he said. “It’s going to be really hard to get any legislation passed. It’s a question of if the administration can go to the Congress with a package of changes that Congress will want to pass.”

6 thoughts on “Failing to connect the dots”

  1. OT but related to the muslim “John” who keeps posting his twaddle
    on this site, Now to start deconstructing the muslim “John”. Firstly Sheik – can you post the ip of where this fool is posting from. I am pretty sure I now know who it is and, if correct, the newspapers will have some fun with the idiot’s logic. The following posts refers to an oft quoted muslim blurb posted by the muslim “John” on the “Who is Sheik Y…” page. He uses typical muslim propoganda, using out of context statements of Christians authors to give the false image of support for islam. In these notes I will point out why the quotes given by so-called “Christian Scholars” which appear to support islam either do not suppoort islam, are misquoted, or cannot be taken seriously due to the social and political affiliations of the relevant author. It should be noted that many of these quotes are made by people who are quoting out of field, and that the expertise for which they were well known is not relevant in commenting on religion. In this sense these quotes are no more valid then the opinion of the person in the street. The fist quote is attributed to George Bernard Shaw.
    The quote did appear in (G.B. Shaw, The Genuine Islam, Vol.l. No. 81936.)
    however G.B.Shaw was not the author of this series of magazines. Shaw was an addicted socialist, almost a communist, and as such given the similarities between islam and communism one cannot discount the fact that Shaw comment was actually a form of support for an extreme form of socialism.
    It was almost certainly not a quote to support islam which Shaw only briefly examined. The following is another quote by Shaw related to islam which is not as complimentary. Note that the time frame between these quotes was less than two years.

    * The apparent multiplicity of Gods is bewildering at the first glance; but you presently discover that they are all the same one God in different aspects and functions and even sexes. There is always one uttermost God who defies personification. This makes Hinduism the most tolerant religion in the world, because its one transcendent God includes all possible Gods… Hinduism is so elastic and so subtle that the profoundest Methodist and the crudest idolater are equally at home in it.
    Islam is very different, being ferociously intolerant. What I may call Manifold Monotheism becomes in the minds of very simple folk an absurdly polytheistic idolatry, just as European peasants not only worship Saints and the Virgin as Gods, but will fight fanatically for their faith in the ugly little black doll who is the Virgin of their own Church against the black doll of the next village. When the Arabs had run this sort of idolatry to such extremes … they did this without black dolls and worshipped any stone that looked funny, Mahomet rose up at the risk of his life and insulted the stones shockingly, declaring that there is only one God, Allah, the glorious, the great… And there was to be no nonsense about toleration. You accepted Allah or you had your throat cut by someone who did accept him, and who went to Paradise for having sent you to Hell. Mahomet was a great Protestant religious force, like George Fox or Wesley….
    There is actually a great Hindu sect, the Jains, with Temples of amazing magnificence, which abolish God, not on materialist atheist considerations, but as unspeakable and unknowable, transcending all human comprehension.
    o Letter to the Reverend Ensor Walters (1933), as quoted in Bernard Shaw : Collected Letters, 1926-1950 (1988) by Dan H. Laurence, p. 305; Note: Shaw actually errs here in characterizing Jainism as simply a sect of Hinduism, as it is usually regarded as a separate and independent tradition, though Hindu and Jain philosophers Shaw is also not an official representative of the Christian faiths.

    It is clear that the majority of muslims, like eg the parasite John, have not understood the reference frame within which Shaw made the statement. It is also clear that Shaw was not fully aware of many of the characteristics of the religions about which he commented. Analysis of Shaw suggests that he was not a fan of islam. Conclusion: The statement attributed to Shaw which is purported to support islam does in fact not support islam within the original context within which it was quoted. John (the muslim) has either not understood or simply lied and deliberately misquoted – the latter seems the most likely. Tomorrow I post my reply related to Masserman.

  2. Wayne Gretzky, when commenting on a reporters question about his great skill as a hockey player, said “It doesn’t take great skill necessarily. It’s just a matter of anticipating where the puck is going to be next on the ice.” “My father always told me ‘”Skate where the pucks going ….not where its been.”‘

    Homeland security has to anticipate the next al Qaeda move and not just wait for intelligence reports because by time they receive the reoprts the plot may already be afoot or has changed in planning or implementation.

  3. In historical Warfare, the one side who is out to conquer, over a period of time succeeds over the ones defensively attempting to preserve the status quo.
    Islam’s aim is to conquer all other societies, and the defending socieies are reacting foolishly to this aggression.

    Its ABOUT TIME to become REALISTS, and declare TOTAL WAR, to exterminate the Islamic Ideology, otherwise our future female citizens will be wrapped in Burkas and the male survivers will function as Dhimmis.

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