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

UN: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter 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.
Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid