News / USA

Christmas Day Attack Highlights US Intelligence Gaps

Multimedia

Audio
Gary Thomas

The 2001 attacks, in which terrorists hijacked airliners to use as guided missiles, sparked a major overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community. 

Yet on Christmas Day, a would-be suicide bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, nearly blew up an airliner in flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  President Obama said Abdulmutallab was acting on orders from al-Qaida's branch in Yemen.  Not only did he manage to get explosives on the aircraft, but he got on the U.S.-bound flight even after his own father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria of his son's growing radical Islamist sympathies.

Professor Amy Zegart, who teaches on intelligence issues at UCLA, says the Christmas Day attack was clearly a major intelligence failure.

"I think it's hard to conclude that it's an intelligence success when somebody who is a foreign national, and there's a tip by NSA [National Security Agency] six months before - or however many months before, from August - whose father actually warns American officials that he's become an extremist, gets on an airplane and tries to blow it up, and the pieces were in the system and nobody thought to raise the alarm," she said.  "How can you conclude that it's anything but a failure?"

In the post 9/11 intelligence reorganization, a new Office of National Intelligence was created to oversee the 16 disparate agencies dealing in intelligence.  The Department of Homeland Security was born to pull together domestic intelligence efforts, including airport security.  And, perhaps most significantly, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), was set up so all the intelligence agencies could pool information related to terrorism.

Current and former intelligence officials argue that the information on Abdulmutallab was in fact shared.  But, as former CIA director General Michael Hayden tells VOA, it was never properly analyzed - connecting the dots, as intelligence officers like to call it - to raise warning signals.

"These dots look very powerful and connected in retrospect," he said.  "But given the vast ocean of dots that analysts have to work with prospect, this is very daunting task every day, and for the most part they get it right.  Here they didn't.  They didn't connect the dots, or at least didn't connect them in time to take action."

Amy Zegart says the system works better than it used to, particularly with regard to the National Counterterrorism Center.  But, she adds, the intelligence bureaucracy has become more cumbersome than ever.

"By most accounts NCTC has been a dramatic improvement over the fragmented system we had before," she said.  "But we seem to be so bureaucratized with all these reforms, with so many watchlists and so many fusion centers and so many procedures that the system can't work.  The bureaucracy is strangling itself.

But General Hayden says errors will occur because intelligence agencies are not infallible, especially when confronted with a tsunami of information from a wide range of human and electronic sources.

"The real challenge here is the analysis that puts the information together.  These young folks get it right most all the time, but it is unreasonable to expect they will get it right all the time in every instance," he noted.

Zegart warns against another rush to overhaul of the intelligence system in the wake of the Christmas Day incident.

"I hope what we will not see is yet more reorganization because as you know, whenever there's an intelligence failure, our immediate reaction is, let's create another agency, or let's reorganize the ones we have," he added.  "That's not what we need to be doing here. We need to make the system we have work better, not create a new system."

Former CIA director Hayden agrees.

"What you have is a very difficult task that seems to have worked quite well over the past eight years," he explained.  "In this instance it didn't.  But given the reality that you can never be 100 percent successful, when you have a failure, the initial instinct to go back and condemn the entire structure and the entire system is actually counterproductive and, frankly, quite destructive.

Nevertheless, what Amy Zegart calls the finger-pointing of blame has already begun, with the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center as particular targets.  At least two congressional committees have already planned investigative hearings on the Christmas Day plot.

You May Like

Reports of Mass Murder on Mediterranean Smuggler’s Boat

Boat sailed from Libya with 750 migrants aboard and arrived in Italy with 569 More

Video New Thailand Hotline Targets Misbehaving Monks

Officials say move aims to restore country’s image of Buddhism, tarnished by recent high profile scandals such as opulent lifestyle, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as child sex abuse More

Study: Dust from Sahara Helped Form Bahama Islands

What does the Sahara have in common with a Caribbean island? Quite a lot, researchers say More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train in Underwater Labi
X
George Putic
July 25, 2014 7:25 PM
In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid