Intelligence failure?

INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?…. After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father raised concerns about his son’s radicalism in November, Abdulmutallab’s name was added to an enormous list, and the CIA prepared a profile. The profile, however, was not shared with other agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center.

Soon after, the National Security Agency intercepted chatter about al Qaeda in Yemen seeking a Nigerian for some kind of attack at some point in the near future. The National Counterterrorism Center had that information, but didn’t have much to go on.

So, eight years after the attacks of 9/11, communications between intelligence agencies are still far from the idea. But was the failed plot an “intelligence failure”? In a very smart post, Spencer Ackerman explains why it may not have been.

Abdulmutallab’s father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn’t know where his son was, but might be in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the NCTC, would someone have put two and two together — setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab’s visa or putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy’s dad says he’s dangerous; he’s Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough?

The answer to that question most certainly requires a policy decision, not an intelligence decision. The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on. Are we prepared for that?

Similarly, there’s a reasonable issue to investigate about intelligence-sharing processes even in the pre-specific-threat level. But remember: that just increases the firehose of data NCTC must process. Information is supposed to filter up to NCTC in strength and specificity from the component intelligence agencies so that NCTC isn’t overwhelmed. If we want to say that there should be a lower standard for sharing with NCTC, fine. But then either NCTC needs to be given more resources, or we risk missing the next Abdulmutallab because NCTC’s analysts will be drowning in nonspecific data and trying to rope it to flotillas of additional information.

When you know the answer to a puzzle, the clues look glaringly obvious. This week, we’ve all seen plenty of items making it seem as if the entire intelligence community must have been asleep at the wheel: “The father told us he was dangerous! And al Qaeda said it was looking for a Nigerian! Simple!”

Except it’s not. As Kevin Drum concluded, “The intelligence community plainly needs to account for itself here, and upon investigation we might decide that there really was a systemic breakdown. But it’s way too early to say that with any confidence.”