President Obama: Ask THESE Questions

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As President Obama meets with his intelligence cabinet today, here's hoping that he asks a couple of pointed questions:

-- What does the National Counterterrorism Center actually do?  Why is it staffed with people who are very junior?

-- Is there too much intelligence? Whose job is it to act on hunches and run them through the system?

-- Who is responsible for rapidly upgrading the intelligence community's IT infrastructure?

-- How can the White House pressure Congress to do a better job of oversight?

-- If an ambassador, or a policy maker, senses something suspicious, why shouldn't he (or she) be held accountable for failing to flag said item as suspicious?

-- Why am I meeting with so many different people to figure out what went wrong? Does that give me an indication of the problem itself?

For the sake of the future of U.S. intelligence, let's ban the dot connecting metaphor. The Christmas Day terrorist attempt was fundamentally not about a failure to connect the dots. The dots were already connected. An elaborate portrait was drawn, with chiaroscuro shading and an antique frame. All that was needed is a policy maker to act on the information -- someone whose job it is to look at the pictures and decide how to change policy accordingly.  This could have been the administrator of the FAA. It could have been the chief of station in Lagos. It could have been Mike Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. It could have been a senior FBI agent working counterterrorism. It could have been a senior SIGINT analyst at the National Security Agency. It could have been a regional security officer in the Diplomatic Security Service. It could have been Janet Napolitano, or someone working for the TSA's intelligence division. All of them had plenty of information. No one felt compelled to shake the tree.

"In some ways, this case is worse than 9/11," said Amy Zegart, the highly regarded UCLA researcher of national security. When an FBI agent suspected the presence of two Al Qaeda terrorists inside the United States, she made the decision to call the FBI's Bin Laden unit in New York and impress upon its head that the information in her possession was important. "In this case, no one seems to have even picked up the phone."

Before 9/11, Zegart says, agencies refused to share information even when they were sitting in the same room. After 9/11, information sharing has become routine -- too routine -- paper shuffling. What good is a State Department cable if its originator does not believe it is important? Why have continually updated terrorist watch lists that don't trigger anything in particular? When the National Security Agency, which routinely intercepts about 200,000,000 communications per day, actually finds a diamond in the rough -- chatter about a Nigerian who is going to attempt an attack on an airplane -- what happens when everyone knows about it but no one feels compelled to act upon it?

One person who advises the administration on intelligence issues compared the process of producing intelligence nowadays to Gulliver, constrained by 1,001 nodes for dot collection. Fusion, for the sake of fusion, provides policy makers with no advantage.

The National Counterterrorism Center is responsible for all-source analysis. As envisioned by the 9/11 commission and then by Congress, its highly trained, experienced analysts would fuse data from all 16 intelligence agencies and produce "products" that policy makers would then use to make decisions. Critics worried that the NCTC's establishment would displace the decision makers themselves; they would rely on others to connect dots and tell them what to do. Centralizing intelligence analysis when fighting a broadly distributed and evolving enemy did not make sense; separating the function of high-level counterterrorism analysis from intelligence collectors -- the folks at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center -- was like a blueprint for a game of telephone.

There have been worthy initiatives from the ODNI -- science-based analytical guidelines, new joint-duty requirements for managers -- heck, former DNI Mike McConnell even managed to eliminate one very large and not very useful technical collection program.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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