Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Stating--and Fixing--the Obvious

We've been critical of President Obama on numerous occasions, but today, we'll give him credit for describing last week's breach of airline security as a "systemic failure."

While Mr. Obama's comment might be described as stating the obvious, it was refreshing (if overdue) for someone in the administration to admit that we came periously close to catastrophe in the skies over Michigan on Christmas Day. The President's remarks also made a mockery of earlier statements by other officials, particularly Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who initially claimed that the "system worked."

Of course, the President's admission creates a few problems for his national security team. Ms. Napolitano's original assertion was remarkably similar to that of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who also made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. So, claims about the system "working" were clearly based on administration talking points. The White House apparently believed the public would accept that explanation until it became a national joke, forcing other officials--and finally, the President--to offer more realistic assessments. It would be an understatement to say Team Obama has suffered another serious blow to its credibility.

Then, there's the little matter of fixing that gaping security breach. The President, in best bureaucratic fashion, has ordered a "top-level review" of the intelligence failures that caused the near-disaster. A preliminary report is due on his desk on New Year's Eve; a more detailed assessment will follow in 2010. Mr. Obama is also promising accountability in the matter. Presumably, that means that someone will lose his (or her) job because of the screw-up, which nearly resulted in hundreds of fatalities.

Unfortunately, the government's track record in accountability is hardly promising. George Tenet, then-Director of Central Intelligence, kept his job after the debacles that led to 9-11. Ditto for other, senior intelligence officials. There's not much motive for senior bureaucrats to improve their job performance--or that of their subordinates--if everyone keeps their jobs, even after the most glaring intelligence failures.

The guarantee of lifetime employment is also a powerful disincentive to end the turf battles that still beset our intelligence community. Consider the "data trail" that preceded Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to bring down Flight 253. Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government economics minister, personally warned the U.S. Embassy in Lagos last month.

Given the elder Abdulmutallab's stature, it's clear he wasn't passed off to some minor consular official who passed the information along in a routine diplomatic cable. Reading between the lines of this AFP report, it seems clear that the CIA station in Lagos was notified immediately, and it's quite likely that agency personnel were involved in conversations with Abdulmutallab's father.

The CIA also insists that it passed the information to the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), and ensured that Farouk Abdulmutallab's name was entered into a government database. What happened after that is a bit fuzzy; despite the initial report (and later information that highlighted Abdulmutallab's ties to terrorists in Yemen), the "underwear bomber" never made it onto a no-fly list. The failure was compounded by other red flags, also missed by security personnel. He had no checked luggage for his "trip" to Detroit; Adbulmutallab paid for his one-way ticket in cash and was allowed to board the Northwest flight without a passport.

We suspect that the intelligence problems resulted, in part, from differing security classifications for the various databases. The initial report from Abdulmutallab's father was likely classified at the "Secret" level and disseminated via SIPRNET, the government intranet cleared for material up to that level. Meanwhile, reporting that linked the Nigerian to radicals in Yemen might have been based on SIGINT reporting; information of that type is normally held at the "Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI), and disseminated via another network, known as JWICS.

Put another way, it's quite likely that those vital bits of intelligence data were never fused together. That would have given the feds ample reason to bar Abdulmutallab from the flight, although his actions in Amsterdam were more than sufficient for a secondary screening which might have revealed his hidden bomb.

Of course, the intelligence community has an organization that's supposed to "fuse" terrorist-related intel information--the NCTC. But the center is hardly immue from the long-running turf battles between the CIA and the FBI. The two agencies have sparred for years over the counter-terrorism mission and that war has only intensified since 9-11. With billions of budget dollars on the line (and dominance in the counter-terror mission at stake), it's little wonder that the NCTC has become yet another battleground for the FBI and CIA. True, the center actually falls under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), but with the CIA and FBI providing most of the personnel, conflicts over intel sources, methods and information reliability are inevitable.

And the list of problems doesn't end there. Beyond database issues and turf wars, there's the "mindset" that dominates our battles against terrorists. With the arrival of the Obama Team, the U.S. government has returned to a "law enforcement" approach in dealing with terror groups. Closing Gitmo, shipping Khalid Sheik Mohammed to Manhattan for a civilian trial and even the handling of Farouk Abdulmutallab are evidence of a changing mindset, one that will make it more difficult to prosecute terrorists--and implement solutions to deter future attacks.

You see, there's already a successful system for dealing with the types of threats posed by radicals like Abdulmutallab and his handlers in Yemen. It's the Israeli model, based heavily on advanced passenger screening and profiling. Israel's state airline (El Al) and other carriers have used this approach for years, supplemented with additional layers of physical security at the airport and on individual aircraft. Additionally, Israel is the only nation to take the extra measure of installing missile defense systems on passenger jets, protecting them against yet another potential threat.

But enhanced screening and passenger profiling have become dirty words in the United States. Concerns about civil liberties (and the initial cost for such measures) have prevented profiling on U.S. carriers. And, sadly enough, neither the Bush or Obama Administrations have shown any leadership in these areas. Indeed, it will be an uphill battle to install advanced, "full-body" scanners in American airports.

It's easy enough to spot the holes in our existing security system. But mustering the political courage to implement the required fixes is another matter entirely. We're guessing that enhanced passenger screening and profiling measures won't be implemented until an Al Qaida bomber actually succeeds, and brings down a passenger jet, killing hundreds of innocent civilians.

Then--and only then--will our political leaders summon the courage to do the right thing.


davod said...

Incomptence and infighting are always a safe bet in these circumstances. What if the problem is ratbag infiltration of the process, whether at State, the security services, or at the higher political level.

Not Jihadists, or should I say Takfiris, per se, but people inside the US organizations with a worldview opposed to current US policies.

Ed Bonderenka said...

OK, so some people got scared. An Islamic Terrorist got his junk burned off. An idiot (Napolitano: color in that "Morticia" streak!) was exposed as incompetent. Obama's team takes a hit.
Nobody died.
There is a God in heaven.

sykes.1 said...

The basic problems of turf wars, not sharing, not connecting the dots, etc., go all the way back to Pearl Harbor. The intelligence communities (of all countries not just the US) consistently fail to predict major events. None of the many, many reforms of the last 70 years has changed anything. I do not believe the problem can be fixed.

I suspect part of this is Hayek's information problem. There's simply too much information to digest and no methodology to guide analysis.

The other part is genetic. Human brains are wired to compete with the other. Any organization of people into groups of any kind creates the other and activates the paleolithic instincts

sykes.1 said...

Maybe I should reconsider my previous comment.

I generally think that stupidity, laziness, arrogance and greed are sufficient to explain most failures. However, over at http://strata-sphere.com/blog/ they think that someone in the administration intervened to let the Christmas bomber get on the plane. They think the circumstantial evidence indicates that the intelligence agencies in fact did connect the dots.

I really don't want to believe this. The implications are too awful to contemplate

Ivan said...

The author gives the president more credit than he deserves. Obama didn't have the stones to say "I failed" or "my administration failed", he said "it failed", i.e. a "system" that will be little more than an abstraction to the constituents. On the contrary, the chief executive is entirely responsible for the performance of the executive branch on his watch. The well-worded posturing merely sets the stage for absolution of himself and his select political appointees, and inevitable punishment of those underlings who were sounding inconvenient, unheeded alarms.

America did not elect a system, we elected a president, and the president must be held directly accountable for the performance of all aspects of the executive.

And do you think an imbecile like Janet Napolitano is truly capable of solving these problems within the limits of the Constitution? If these folks were in charge on 9/11, we'd have troops on our own streets rather than Kabul.

Peaceful Crusader said...

We need to profile based on Ideology:

Qur'an:9:88 "The Messenger and those who believe with him, strive hard and fight with their wealth and lives in Allah's Cause."
Qur'an:9:5 "Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war."
Qur'an:9:112 "The Believers fight in Allah's Cause, they slay and are slain, kill and are killed."
Qur'an:9:29 "Fight those who do not believe until they all surrender, paying the protective tax in submission."
Ishaq:325 "Muslims, fight in Allah's Cause. Stand firm and you will prosper. Help the Prophet, obey him, give him your allegiance, and your religion will be victorious."