Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why are we still unable to connect dots?

You would have thought that eight years after 9/11, the one change that would have taken place in our battles against terrorism is that our intelligence agencies would be able to coordinate their information in order to get a better handle on the big picture as well as understanding the myriad of details that pour in every single day. What is especially dismaying about what we're finding out about the Nigerian Christmas undie bomber is how much information we had, but still wasn't connected. This isn't a partisan problem. Clearly, the apparatus set up by the Bush administration has not solved this, but the Obama administration bears the blame because it happened on their watch and their goal of turning the fight against terrorism into a legal problem rather than a war may be exacerbating our intelligence weaknesses.

President Obama's much stronger statements yesterday are an indication that the administration is finding out all sorts of information about the intelligence failures that led to that bomber boarding an airplane with his underwear full of explosives. Notice how he was "allegedly" a bomber on Monday, but not on Tuesday. And why did the administration issue this audio statement from Obama without any pictures? How 1930s is that?

Now we've found out that the CIA had information about a Nigerian who was training in Yemen. The father went to US officials in November and his name was put on a list that was circulated, but nothing more seemed to have been done. So there was information about a Nigerian training in Yemen and about a Nigerian man whose own father expressed concern about what the guy was doing in Yemen.
During Tuesday’s appearance, the president also said: “It's been widely reported that the father of the suspect in the Christmas incident warned U.S. officials in Africa about his son's extremist views. It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community, but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list.”

That “component” is apparently the NCTC, created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. It’s not clear what analysts there should have done with the information. One possibility would have been to alert FBI agents.

The U.S. intelligence official said: “The United States government set up NCTC — and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — to connect the dots on terrorism. If somebody thinks it could have been done better in this case, they know where to go for answers.”
As Ed Morrissey points out, the 9/11 Commission's recommendations for streamlining our intelligence so that we could better connect the dots simply seemed to have created another level of bureaucracy. Morrissey points out that, as could have been predicted by anyone who knows anything about bureaucracies, the end result has been more turf wars over who is in control of intelligence. Just at about the time that Abdulmutallab's father was telling U.S. officials about his son's connections with extremists in Yemen, our officials in Washington were struggling over a very common bureaucratic turf war - who gets to talk to the big man.
Early last week, several long-festering bureaucratic issues that had arisen between Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta had to be settled by national security adviser James L. Jones, through some Solomon-like decisions.

Blair's four-year-old organization has been trying to establish its role as supervisor of all 16 intelligence agencies, particularly involving the CIA, the former top dog.

The CIA, by a 60-year tradition, has worked directly for every president. The agency usually did the President's Daily Brief (PDB) -- the overnight intelligence report for the chief executive -- and the morning Oval Office oral briefing that accompanies it. Normally, the briefer was accompanied by the agency director or a top deputy. Questions from the Oval Office were immediately carried back to CIA headquarters in Langley, where case officers and analysts set out to answer them. The most important link was when it came to the CIA's covert actions, which the president must authorize.

Now some of those links have been broken. Blair's outfit prepares the PDB, and he or a deputy attends the Oval Office briefing. Though the PDB is often CIA-written and the briefers are primarily from the agency, the president's questions are filtered through Blair's group. The result: CIA personnel have been guarded about their remaining turf.

Three issues arose within the past year. The best known involved a May Intelligence Community Directive from Blair that dealt with appointing DNI representatives to foreign partners and international organizations. Blair's directive said that although CIA station chiefs would most likely serve as DNI representatives, he reserved the right "in rare circumstances" to name someone else, albeit after consultation with the local ambassador and the CIA director.

The agency bureaucrats went directly to new Director Leon Panetta with their complaints about the DNI representatives. They also raised two other less-publicized issues they considered to be further infringement on the CIA's relationship with the president.

The first was a DNI role in oversight of covert action, operations almost always carried out by the CIA. CIA officials thought their officers should continue to deal directly with the White House, even on oversight issues, without second-guessing from DNI personnel. Blair thought the CIA was bypassing him with the White House. Blair believed he would be held accountable by the president, Congress and the public for success or, more worrisome, failure of such operations.

The second issue involved Blair's determination to name the intelligence community representative at National Security Council meetings, even when CIA issues were central. His rationale was that he wanted to ensure that an integrated intelligence picture was presented, even when CIA issues, such as covert actions, were involved.
Over 30 years ago, I was a very lowly summer intern for a couple of summers at the National Security Agency. I was struck then about how everyone seemed very focused on keeping information from the CIA. That seemed to be a much deeper concern than anything that the Soviets might be up to. After all this time, it's not clear that much has changed.

Morrissey argues that it is time that we got serious about streamlining intelligence gathering instead of adding in another layer as we did after the 9/11 Commission.
This problem is one Barack Obama can even claim to have inherited, although once again in part from himself. The real problem lies in the 9/11 Commission’s reorganization of intelligence. Instead of taking the 16 agencies and merging them no more than two or three organizations and streamlining the flow from analysts to decisionmakers, Congress adopted the bureaucratic approach instead. The very problems they purported to solve, the interagency feuds and lack of data sharing, have reappeared in the exact same form as in 2001. In fact, the reorganization created turf wars at even higher levels than we had before. All of this was utterly predictable — and I predicted it repeatedly at Captain’s Quarters from 2004 to 2007.

Most Americans don’t care whether a Democrat or a Republican resides in the White House when it comes to national security; they just want the nation to defend itself properly against attack. The question of whether heads should roll is really secondary anyway. The problem isn’t so much the personnel — after all, Hillary Clinton didn’t get on the phone to embassies to instruct them to ignore critical information, and Leon Panetta didn’t deliberately keep dots from connecting. The big problem is the 9/11 Commission’s insane recommendations and Congress’ leap to implement them. That reorganization needs to be dismantled, and the intelligence community streamlined properly to rid itself of sclerotic and antagonistic bureaucracies. We need to reduce barriers to cooperative work, not create more of them, and we should have realized this five years ago and every day since.

Let’s quit worrying about firing people and focus on finally fixing a problem that we’ve only made worse since 9/11, before we run into a terrorist who manages to be competent about blowing himself up.
Hear, hear. But that is a long-term solution that, given how the turf battles among the intelligence agencies are reflected within the committees in Congress, we also need to focus on the problem at hand. What are we going to do about extremists training in Yemen to blow themselves up and take as many westerners as possible along with them? Attacking Yemen may be necessary, but talking about it in the media is not a good first step. We shouldn't be reading stories like this.
The U.S. and Yemen are now looking at fresh targets in Yemen for a potential retaliation strike, two senior U.S. officials told CNN Tuesday, in the aftermath of the botched Christmas Day attack on an airliner that al Qaeda in Yemen claims it organized.

The officials asked not to be not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information. They both stressed the effort is aimed at being ready with options for the White House if President Obama orders a retaliatory strike. The effort is to see whether targets can be specifically linked to the airliner incident and its planning.

U.S. special operations forces and intelligence agencies, and their Yemeni counterparts, are working to identify potential al Qaeda targets in Yemen, one of the officials said. This is part of a new classified agreement with the Yemeni government that the two countries will work together and that the U.S. will remain publicly silent on its role in providing intelligence and weapons to conduct strikes.
Why are officials leaking this information? And why are we only looking at targets to be specifically linked to this incident? Shouldn't any terrorist planning camps be targets?

Another problem is treating Abdulmutallab as a criminal instead of like a combatant in an ongoing war. Now that the guy has been arrested, he's gotten a lawyer and we won't get any more useful information from him.
Abdulmutallab remains in a Detroit area prison and, after initial debriefings by the FBI, has restricted his cooperation since securing a defense attorney, according to federal officials.
As long as such terrorist incidents are treated like criminal acts, we will forgo the opportunities to gain valuable intelligence from the men we do capture.

Of course, if we did send them to Gitmo to be interrogated, they may well be released back to Yemen. How's that plan working out for us? Having accepted the demonization of Gitmo, both Bush and Obama decided that the priority was to offload as many detainees as possible wherever they could send them, including that other front in the war on terror - Yemen. Wasn't that a great idea? And now we are finding out that two of the men suspected as having been involved in the planning of the Christmas bombing attack (and do you think it was a coincidence that this was planned to take place on December 25?) were two men who had been released from Gitmo a couple of years ago.
Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

Terror suspect released from Guantanamo now fronts Yemen al-Qaeda group.

American officials agreed to send the two terrorists from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia, where they entered into an "art therapy rehabilitation program" and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.
Art therapy? This isn't a joke, it's what our government swallowed as an appropriate release program for a terrorist detainee. Unbelievable!
Both of the former Guantanamo detainees are described as military commanders and appear on a January, 2009 video along with the man described as the top leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Abu Basir Naser al-Wahishi, formerly Osama bin Laden's personal secretary.

In its Monday statement claiming responsibility for the Northwest bombing, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a "hero" and a "martyr" and lauded him for beating U.S. intelligence.

The two-page written claim included a photo of Abdulmutallab and boasted of Al Qaeda's success in designing "advanced explosive packages" that can pass through airport screening undetected.

The statement also asks for attacks upon Americans in the Arabian peninsula, and promises further attacks on the American people.
Was it really worth all the international goodwill we were supposed to have engendered by trimming the prison population at Guantanamo to have sent these guys off for art therapy? Even Diane Feinstein is having second thoughts about administration plans to send more of those detainees to Gitmo.
The senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee wants no more Guantanamo Bay detainees released to Yemen in the wake of a Christmas Day terrorist attack hatched in that country.

“Guantanamo detainees should not be released to Yemen at this time,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “It is too unstable.”

Feinstein’s warning comes just nine days after the Department of Justice announced the most recent transfer of 12 detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan, Yemen and Somaliland. Six of the 12 were transferred to the government of Yemen.
I suspect that more and more people are coming to understand that the problems we face in fighting terrorism are not due to ill will generated by Guantanamo. Even if all these guys were in Illinois, we'd still have terrorists training around the world to kill us. And what would we blame then?