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Defense Spy Chief Tells VOA Lessons Being Learned from Recent Lapses

  • Gary Thomas

The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency admits there have been some recent lapses among U.S. intelligence organizations that need attention. In an exclusive VOA interview, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess said his agency is taking to heart President Obama's directive to tighten intelligence practices and procedures.

Speaking at an office in the Pentagon, General Ronald Burgess said the intelligence community's failure to detect the Christmas day airliner plot was an aberration. "We have a lot of intelligence professionals that are dedicated to ensuring that the best possible intelligence gets to the folks when it needs to. Once in a while, as happened on Dec. 25, we're going to fall short of the standard that we should set for ourselves or others set for us. But Americans have a right to expect their intelligence community to perform professionally, and I think that day in and day out we do a pretty good job of it," he said.

Nevertheless, General Burgess said he has ordered his agency to move quickly to comply with President Obama's orders to fix any potential holes in the system.

The defense intelligence chief spoke with VOA on the day that alleged bomber, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was arraigned in a Detroit court for the attempted bombing. He tried to destroy an Amsterdam to Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, but the explosives did not ignite and he was subdued by passengers.

Echoing President Obama, General Burgess said the intelligence agencies had the bits and pieces to detect a plot but failed to put them together. "The information was in fact shared among the agencies and entities that I think needed to have some of the information. But what didn't happen is that analysts at different levels didn't focus and put some of the dots together and connect some of the things that needed to be done," he said.

Abdulmutallab's own father had warned U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son had adopted extremist views while in Yemen, but did not give any specific warning of an attack. General Burgess said it is not yet clear how close the alleged bomber's ties to al-Qaida were. "I don't think that we know enough yet to say that he was AQ (al-Qaida) Pure, as I would call him, or whether he was a franchise-like operation. I think that will now come out here over time. But the fact is, you've got an individual that in a fairly short period of time, an operation was put together and he was able to conduct an operation coming into the United States for an attack against the homeland," he said.

General Burgess said he has prodded his intelligence analysts to try to think one step ahead of the terrorists. "I used the question, when we are successful in Afghanistan, where will the enemy go to? Because I want to get there ahead of them and make sure that I am postured as an intelligence professional to provide the insights and knowledge to policymakers and commanders. And clearly Yemen, the Horn of Africa, places like that, present a place we ought to be at least considering and looking at," he said.

He said that instability and lack of effective governance make such places attractive to al-Qaida as new bases from which to plot and plan further attacks.