President Obama and his national security team moved quickly and decisively to root out the failures that allowed would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board flight 253 bound for Detroit on Christmas Day. By Washington standards, the administration's unclassified report was produced in record time and couched in uncharacteristically sobering terms, replete with words like "failure," "breakdown," and "errors." Everyone involved with the terrorist review surely understood how narrowly we averted catastrophe and the nervous relief was palpable during the report's rollout.
The report's findings are unflinching and the actions ordered by President Obama to remedy the failures are warranted. As the intelligence community moves to plug identified operational and analytic holes and congressional overseers begin their own investigations later in the month, five issues need to be addressed further if gains are to be made toward protecting Americans against an unwavering terrorist threat.
Technology. Of the 16 corrective actions ordered by the president, five include the word "technology," and for good reason. A common thread in the Detroit plot is the government's failure to employ advanced information technology tools to handle the crush of ever-increasing information collected on known and suspected terrorists. The garden hose analysts used to drink from prior to 9/11 has become a fire hose. Automated recognition, correlation and search tools used commonly in the commercial sector to manage massive databases are absolutely essential to successfully locating and connecting disparate fragments of intelligence with alacrity and automatically "pushing" alerts to analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The human, intuitive aspect of analysis can never be replaced. But to what extent are our analysts hamstrung by clunky, outdated information technology tools incapable of taming the torrents of data?
Authority. The penultimate finding of the terrorism review was the
most surprising, that "there was not a comprehensive or functioning
process for tracking terrorist threat reporting and actions taken such
that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all
leads associated with...[terrorist plots]...against the U.S. Homeland."
The NCTC was established by intelligence reform legislation in 1994 to
execute this very mission. Why this isn't being done routinely
across the board -- or wasn't done in this specific instance -- is
unclear from reading the report. One fix may be to give the NCTC
statutory authority it currently lacks, specifically the ability to
pull or demand terrorist data (instead of passively receiving it) from the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency and
other intelligence collectors. In addition, "cradle to grave"
responsibility for tracking high priority terrorist leads will only
succeed when analysts play a more prominent role in driving
intelligence collection than exists today.
Redundancy and Responsibility. The administration's report notes that the "intentional redundancy" of the analytic cadres at NCTC and CIA "should have added an additional layer of protection" in uncovering the Christmas Day plot. Perhaps. But with redundancy comes the question of who exactly is in charge and responsible. If everyone is in charge, is no one in charge? Even after the creation of the NCTC, the CIA maintained its predecessor Counter Terrorism Center (CTC). How do these two organizations work together, or not? Add in the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and it is not clear that redundancy is actually producing the desired safety net against intelligence "falling into the cracks."
Empowerment. Has the move to consolidate terrorism analysis at NCTC and watch-listing at the Federal Bureau of Investigation-led Terrorist Screening Center had the unintended consequence of reducing individual initiative in the field? Unifying counterterrorism analysis was an important reform in promoting the sharing of time-sensitive information and eliminating information custody "stovepipes" at agencies like the CIA and FBI. But embassy visa officials and field collectors and report officers cannot become complacent that when the "send" button is hit on their computer keyboard and a document is sent to the NCTC, their job is over. Diplomatic and intelligence officials at all levels must be -- and feel -- empowered to "ring the bell" through concurrent channels whenever they come across alarming, time-sensitive terrorism information. That's the sort of "better safe than sorry" redundancy that adds value.
Recruitment. There is a growing threat posed by al Qaeda's recruitment of "clean" operatives to carry out suicide attacks -- individuals whose citizenship, cultural background, and lack of known association with extremist groups make them less likely to draw suspicion. There have been alarming indications recently that the virulent extremist message propagated by al Qaeda and its affiliates on the Internet, in chat rooms, and in social and religious venues, is beginning to take root inside America and produce recruits. The threat of homegrown terrorism, witnessed earlier in Europe, has metastasized to the U.S. and represents the newest terrorist battle front. Our federal counter-ideology program is fragmented and not effectively coordinated among the FBI, State Department, Pentagon, and the Intelligence Community. We have underestimated the ideological training and indoctrination system employed by terrorist groups, and our efforts at blunting this recruitment have been too little, too late. We are confronting and intercepting fully formed jihadists, many, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, radicalized in Western countries, at the end of a long ideological training process that produces them. And the reality is that terrorists are being replaced faster than we can arrest or kill them. As the president and his national security team continue their work to bolster the efficiency and effectiveness of our counterterrorism efforts, we cannot afford to overlook the threat from within.
Andy Johnson is the national security director at Third Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank. He is the former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a 26-year veteran of the federal government's national security sector.