Sunday, January 03, 2010

Having it Both Ways

Just days after criticizing the intelligence community for a "systemic failure" that failed to prevent the attempted bombing of a U.S. jetliner, President Obama switched gears, praising seven CIA operatives who died during an attack on their compound in Afghanistan.

In a statement released yesterday, Mr. Obama described the dead officers as "part of a long line of patriots who have made great sacrifices for their fellow citizens and our way of life." He also observed that CIA agents "serve on the frontlines in directly confronting the dangers of the 21st Century."

For many intel professionals, the president's dichotomy was a bit more than they could bear. In the span of just a few days, Mr. Obama executed a rhetorical "180," praising the same community he had previously lambasted. As one angry CIA agent told the U.K. Daily Mail:

‘One day the President is pointing the finger and blaming the intelligence services, saying there is a systemic failure,’ said one agency official. ‘Now we are heroes. The fact is that we are doing everything humanly possible to stay on top of the security situation. The deaths of our operatives shows just how involved we are on the ground.’

But CIA bosses claim they were unfairly blamed at a time the covert government agency has been stretched further than ever before in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They point to the murder of seven operatives at a remote mountain base in Afghanistan’s Khost Province as an example of how agents are putting their lives on the line at the vanguard of America’s far-flung wars.

The spooks have a point, but they're also being a bit sensitive. There's plenty of room for blame in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bomb plot, and the intelligence community deserves some of that criticism. Eight years after 9-11, various spy agencies and organizations still have trouble fusing and sharing information. Those issues were readily evident in the aftermath of Farouk Abdulmutallab's abortive attempt to bring down that Northwest Airlines flight, and we can only wonder if anyone can ever fix such fundamental flaws.

Consider what the intel community has already admitted. Long before Abdulmutallab's name surfaced as a potential terrorist, the National Security Agency knew that Al Qaida's Yemen affiliate was planning another airline attack. That information was (presumably) disseminated, but there wasn't much the NSA (or the CIA) could do, because the name(s) of possible bombers weren't mentioned in the intercepted conversations.

Then, in November, Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker--and former government minister--appeared at our embassy in Lagos with disturbing news. Concerned about his son's embrace of radical Islam, the elder Abdulmutallab warned that his son might be involved in a terrorist plot. That information was enough to place Farouk Abdulmutallab's name in a terrorism database, but not sufficient to put him on a "no fly" list, which would have barred him from that Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight.

We also know that intelligence assets had some awareness of Abdulmutallab's ties to Yemen (where he was trained as an Al Qaida bomber), and his possession of a U.S. visa. Yet, none of the analysts at the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) could pull those threads together, and identify Farouk Abdulmutallab as a likely terrorist. That's why Mr. Obama was correct in identifying the intelligence debacle as a "systemic failure."

On the other hand, the spooks' criticism of the president is not unjustified. Since entering the Oval Office eleven months ago, Mr. Obama has implemented policies that have undercut our intelligence community. Captured terrorists are now treated like suspected criminals, with the same constitutional protections afforded to U.S. citizens. Just hours after being removed from the airliner he tried to bomb, Abdulmutallab was already in our criminal justice system, "lawyered up," and refusing to cooperate. We can only wonder how much information could have been obtained from the underwear bomber if he had been interrogated by intelligence officers before being handed over to the DOJ.

Of course, the interrogation process isn't as easy as it once was. Water-boarding has been officially banned, and the Obama Administration is continuing its efforts to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and move terrorists to prisons in the U.S. And for good measure, government lawyers are still trying to prosecute individuals involved in counter-terrorism and intelligence collection efforts. Three Navy SEALS are facing possible jail time for allegedly slapping a terrorist responsible for the murder of four American contractors in Iraq in 2004.

No wonder the spooks are getting fed up. At this point, hope and change isn't working very well for the intel community.


Aerospook said...

For this disparate data to not be connected by the NCTC is very hard o believe. NCTC, as well as other agencies, use some of the most sophisticated data mining and 3D data matching software in the world.

Yes, someone will have to fall on the sword, but as I have said, as well as many other intel professionals have said, the only plausible reason for the data not to have been connected is:

1> The data screening filter has been intentionally loosened.

2> The fear created in the intel comunity has caused a disconnect in data flow and transfer, so that we are back to pre 9-11 where every agency is afraid to share data.

Does anyone think that anything will change?

Rich said...

Those serving the Mid-East, N. Africa and other sensitive areas potentially face the same fanatical threats as did Lt Col Buckley and others brutally murdered over 2 decades earlier (Hezbollah then, AQ now). Understand the risks, those serving today have never been more essential to our safety.
NCTC programs, Watch Lists and inter-agency alerts may be the first and best, but must never be the last reliable defense. There will ALWAYS be data gaps. This particular attacker should have had his visa questioned and revoked (UK denial, and/or his fathers warnings should have directly raised flags to State). Having a visa he should not have been able to pass ticketing (would he have passed the obligatory chat with EL AL security; I think not). OK, maybe he's just one well rehearsed, honed Nigerian operative who could have hidden his intent even if we applied such methods. A bomb-sniffing dog would have revealed this guys nitrates as he moved through the line on physical screening or more dramatically, by taking the dog down the gateway prior to boarding. OK, too few dogs to do this.
But we are serious about this thing, restricting passenger movements one hour prior to landing and patting down passengers only from specific, widely advertised countries. Talk about a knee-jerk bureaucratic reaction. Classic.