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

Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis Rally Against Racism

PM Netanyahu says he will meet Damas Pakada, the Ethiopia-born Israeli soldier who was filmed being beaten by two policemen More

10 Migrants Drown, While 4,100 Rescued off Libyan Coast

All of those rescued are being ferried to Italian ports, with some arriving on Italy's southernmost island, Lampedusa, and others taken to Sicily and Calabria More

HRW: Saudis Using US Cluster Bombs in Yemen

Human Rights Watch says photographs, video and other evidence have emerged indicating cluster munitions have been used in 'recent weeks' in airstrikes in Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen 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.
From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil Wari
X
Henry Ridgwell
May 03, 2015 1:12 AM
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video 'Woman in Gold' Uses Artwork as Symbol of Cultural Identity

Simon Curtis’ legal drama, "Woman in Gold," is based on the true story of an American Jewish refugee from Austria who fights to reclaim a famous Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. It's a haunting film that speaks to the hearts of millions who have sought to reclaim their past, stripped from them 70 years ago. VOA's Penelope Poulou reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Taviani Brothers' 'Wondrous Boccaccio' Offers Tales of Love, Humor

The Italian duo of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies for half a century: "The Night of the Shooting Stars," "Padre Padrone," "Good Morning, Babylon." Now in their 80s, the brothers have turned to one of the treasures of Italian culture for their latest film. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver reports.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Challenges Await Aid Organizations on the Ground in Nepal

A major earthquake rocked Nepal on Saturday and killed thousands, injured thousands more and sent countless Nepalese outside to live in makeshift tent villages. The challenges to Nepal are enormous, with some reconstruction estimates at around $5 billion. Aid workers from around the world face challenges getting into Nepal, which likely makes for a difficult recovery. Arash Arabasadi has the story from Washington.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs