The Intelligence Community Had 14 Chances to Connect the Dots

The most difficult passage to read in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's unclassified executive summary of its report into the Christmas Day bombing failures has to be this: it is the official position of the National Counterterrorism Center that "no entity within the IC has sole responsibility nor bears the entire burden of either connecting the dots or accountability for failing to do so."

Now, be thankful I work for a company that embodies the value of a spirit of generosity, because when I read that, I wasn't thinking very generous things. In fact, it is precisely the mission of the NCTC to connect dots. Right? I mean, who DIDN'T know that? Really? Who didn't know that?

Let's assume, for the moment, that the law does not give the director of NCTC, Michael Leiter, the "primary responsibility within the United States Government for conducting net assessments of terrorist threats," which it does. 

The NCTC was set up precisely to solve the dot-connecting problem that the 9/11 Commission identified. The intelligence committee knows this. Congress knows this. The American public knows this. And the NCTC ... well, the NCTC is parsing language.

An intelligence official said that the 14 missed clues could easily be read as the 14 chances the intelligence community had to connect the dots and prevent the bombing attempt -- and failed. Fourteen chances!

It is infuriating to hear such a thing. It seems so obvious to those outside the circle that practicing responsibility and accountability would go along way toward solving the communications issues that prevent a piece of data from getting from point A to point C, which might be the terrorist watch list. There will always be human judgments intervening, and the SSCI report points out how plenty were well-intentioned but ultimately mistaken.

But what the report really revealed, without making the conclusion explicit, is that every entity in the IC seemed to be going out of its way to avoid responsibility for making the call. For picking up the phone, stepping on someone's toes, and saying, "You know what ... something doesn't feel right about this guy." For sending e-mail after e-mail to people in other agencies urging them to check and recheck databases. For making TACTICAL decisions about immediate intelligence priorities.

(Within the past few months, DNI Dennis Blair has set up an analytical cell within the NCTC to evaluate tactical intelligence. Finally!)

The lack of a sense of urgency -- or what John Brennan, the president's chief counter-terrorism adviser calls "pulse" -- is astonishing and disheartening.

Not long ago, I asked a senior intelligence official to estimate the number of separate databases regularly used by entities that conduct counterterrorism missions. He thought for a moment, and said, "About 50." Do these databases talk to one another? Most of them don't. They don't interface. They don't update in real time. Many of them are sealed off from most analysts because of security classifications and turf wars. Yes, there are meetings and task forces designed to facilitate "interoperability." 

But to those of us watching someone nearly bring down a plane, no one takes responsibility for making sure, even at the risk to his or her own career, that the damn bits in one server talk to the damn bits in another. Michael Leiter himself is well regarded by the intelligence community. He is trying. But the SSCI report finds explicitly that the NCTC "Failed to Fulfill Its Mission."

That is a damning indictment of a lot of people. It's an indictment of the entire structure of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NCTC. It's an indictment of the CIA, which apparently still refuses to share key counterterrorism information with the NCTC. It's an indictment of Congress, which has never properly empowered the Director of National Intelligence. It's an indictment of Barack Obama's national security staff, which did not appreciate the magnitude of the problem until this incident. It's an indictment of a culture that still exists among the senior executives at many agencies. These seniors are intelligence professionals, so they are able to mouth phrases like "need to share" and "work together" but when they get back to their desks, they're back into their silos.

SSCI.JPGIt should worry Congress and those concerned about intelligence that the IC culture is broken. 

The SSCI gave its report to the White House and the intelligence agencies two months ago, and an official told me last night that the the IC had made progress implementing many of its regulations. The new budget contains more authority for the DNI to make technical decisions more quickly, which should help with the database issues. A DNI official said that Blair "accepted" blame and is making necessary changes.

The report doesn't provide too much detail on intelligence collection, which is par for the course. That stuff is sensitive. But reading through the lines, it appears as if the SSCI wanted to send another message about overreyling on electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) ... and not so much on finding, verifying, vetting and running down nuggets of information from human sources. Human sources are very sensitive and it is very hard to share information from them without disclosing their identities. And many younger IC analysts are trained to read through data, rather than to evaluate HUMINT, much less evaluate it in the context of everything else.

A few days after the Christmas Day incident, President Obama brought his intelligence cabinet together in the Situation Room and said, "I could fire each and every one of you." He did not do that. Instead he said that he would assess each agency's performance over the next several months. Everyone, essentially, was put on notice. Obama's reluctance to fire someone, particularly his director of national intelligence, grated on some in Congress, but they understood the difficulty: firing Adm. Blair would be a gesture, would make a dedicated patriot a scapegoat, and would compound the problem, not help solve it.

No one in government wants to be the DNI because everyone believes that it lacks one of the two fundamental ingredients for power in D.C.: access. But the DNI has plenty of access; it's an open debate about his authority over budgets and programs. Some Blair agonists believe that he hasn't used the power he has and has focused on the wrong priorities. Instead of fighting with the CIA over covert ops, he should have fought with the CIOs of the community over information sharing. Instead of expanding the DNI's 4,000-person staff, he should have pared it down to its essentials, reducing the number of decision makers and streamlining the analytic process. Blair's staff would disagree; they say that budget authority is but one ingredient. The other is the full backing of the president. And there is a perception in Blair's inner circle that the White House hasn't always been there for Denny Blair.

When the National Security Agency began its "Stellar Wind" domestic eavesdropping programs, perhaps the most tragic legacy of that decision was the shame that many analysts at NSA felt upon the program's disclosure. These analysts had spent their entire lives working off the assumption that the NSA does not spy on Americans. That spying on Americans is wrong. When the NSA began to spy on Americans, however carefully they did it, it would not be irresponsible to say that a large number of the people who do their jobs at NSA very well began to question whether their job was worth doing. This is not to say that the policymakers who felt compelled to create the program were wrong. It is to say simply that policies have endogenous consequences as well.
Presented by

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.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Politics

Just In