Is This Really an Intelligence Failure? Real Talk on Abdulmutallab

By
Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 9:09 am

In an appearance on “Democracy Now!” yesterday morning to discuss Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, I made the point that Abdulmutallab’s ability to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 demonstrates a policy failure more than an intelligence failure. By that I meant that the threat information acquired on Abdulmutallab was insufficient to ground him, based on the bureaucracy’s process for placing someone on the no-fly list. And for seemingly good reason: the input on him leading to the conclusion that he was dangerous was his father’s Nov. 19 appeal to officials at the U.S. embassy in Abuja.

As investigation into the case continues, there’s some new information that complicates that picture. First, the CIA, after hearing his father’s concern, compiled a profile of Abdulmutallab consisting of non-specific information, but apparently declined to share it with the National Counterterrorism Center. And the National Security Agency picked up communications from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate indicating that the group was looking to use a “Nigerian” in an unspecified terrorist attack, according to The New York Times. That also didn’t go to the NCTC.

New information may surface. But based on this, is it really fair to point the finger at the intelligence community here? Abdulmutallab’s father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn’t know where his son was, but might be in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the NCTC, would someone have put two and two together — setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab’s visa or putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy’s dad says he’s dangerous; he’s Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough?

The answer to that question most certainly requires a policy decision, not an intelligence decision. The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on. Are we prepared for that?

Similarly, there’s a reasonable issue to investigate about intelligence-sharing processes even in the pre-specific-threat level. But remember: that just increases the firehose of data NCTC must process. Information is supposed to filter up to NCTC in strength and specificity from the component intelligence agencies so that NCTC isn’t overwhelmed. If we want to say that there should be a lower standard for sharing with NCTC, fine. But then either NCTC needs to be given more resources, or we risk missing the next Abdulmutallab because NCTC’s analysts will be drowning in nonspecific data and trying to rope it to flotillas of additional information. It’s reasonable to ask, however, what the CIA did post-Nov. 19 to investigate Abdulmutallab specifically. But it’s also important to remember that barely a month passed between his father’s warning and Flight 253.

None of this is to excuse any complacency. It’s to provide context for evaluating whatever complacency occurred.

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98 Comments

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EvilPoet
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 9:28 am

Dear Mr. Cheney,

You had almost a decade to run the country and run it you did. Straight into the ground – heckuva job! Enough already with your annoying hypocritical chatter about another administration's failures. Please sit down and take your own advice.


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mort1221
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 10:21 am

It is not the no entry list that is important from the standpoint of flight security; it is the list of those who should get more careful searches. Our present system of searching every passenger is patently absurd. Would it not be more effective to search only those who have not been prescreened. All of those who have seen the TSA checking sweet old ladies rather than bearded bomb throwers wonder about the process of deciding who gets the special check.


Robert
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 10:24 am

It once was policy that if you bought a plane ticket with cash, especially one priced at more than $2,000, and you checked no luggage and that your ticket was only one way(though we don't know if that was the case here), you were sequestered and scrutinized very closely before being allowed on a plane. If that had taken place, TSA might have discovered that the Brits had revoked the man's visa. As a policy matter, if you have all of those indices in place, I think it would be more than reasonable to refuse to allow the man on a plane.


Bandit
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 10:45 am

Poor Dem crybabies, unable to take criticism. When will you stand on your own widdle feet and accept responsibility. Never I guess.


EricJaffa
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 10:48 am

The question isn't whether there was enough to put him on a No-Fly list, but an extra-scrutiny list.


annascott2
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 10:52 am

How much time does it take to do a special search of an airline passenger? In the first place, everyone who is on the long list of — whatever it is —- persons of interest in terrorist circles should be searched before boarding a plane. AND watched while on board, perhaps seated in a special section. Surely there's a middle ground between putting someone on a no-fly list and treating him as if he's just Joe Passenger.

And yes, it is an intelligence failure. “Barely a month”? What are computers for, anyway? “Barely 5 minutes” might be a reasonable excuse, but a month? Why isn't there an automatic response to someone without luggage who pays cash for his ticket?

So far as I know, every single attack on planes coming to the USA, successful and not, has been the work of people whom the intelligence community should have been keeping their eye on. There have been no little old ladies from Philadelphia carrying explosives in their unerwear, just men with known or suspected connections to radical Islamic groups.

When Al Qaida starts recruiting apparently blameless little old ladies, things will be different. But till then we should be able to assume that the intelligence community knows its job and is doing it. Which is not the case.

Janet Napolitano should lose her job.

I like her a lot, but she should be replaced by someone with some background in this: here's where we need Richard Clarke!


Mark
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 10:54 am

Exactly! Why is the fact that dude bought a one-way ticket, in cash, with no checked luggage, for a transatlantic flight, not a clear RED FLAG? I think that's the final major sticking point with me. I guess that falls under a “policy failure” as well, but it needs to be one that is fixed ASAP.


D. Smith
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:01 am

Yes, there is a policy failure. There should be a presumption of guilt when a warning comes from a reliable source, like Abdulmutallab's father, and that person should be labeled “no-fly.” No further investigation necessary (with 500,000 names there is no time) until that person presents him/herself for air travel. In this day and time, the consequences of the “ripple out” are tiny compared to allowing a potential terrorist to board a plane.


spencerackerman
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:04 am

How did I defend a single Democrat in this post? I said it was a policy failure and contextualized the intelligence community's role. Too subtle a distinction for you, I guess.


SvergFour
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:14 am

1) he bought a round-trip ticket

2) Nigeria isn't the US. Nigeria is still a cash-based economy. Only 1% of the population has credit cards. Yet again people who know nothing flap wildly about.


slag
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:21 am

They don't actually read what you write. There's no need when cutting and pasting gets the job done in a fraction of the time. Republicans are all about efficiency.


AJStrata
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:23 am

Mr Ackerman,

A few of your assumptions are wrong (though I agree with you overall). The NCTC was made aware of all this. Check out this post for more on all the dots they had.

http://strata-sphere.com/blog/index.php/archive…

What is clear is someone had to disconnect dots any computer system would have been retrieving at NCTC. The only way to ignore the dots was due to policy changes team Obama put in to override the system Bush used to keep us safe since 9-11, in my humble opinion.


slag
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:25 am

I have a question: What is the value of a no-fly list with over a million names on it? And does loosening the criteria for adding people to the list make the list more or less valuable?

OK. I guess I had two questions.


seeder1
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:27 am

Typical. None of this addresses the possiblity of a foreign power that has taken over our White house. Wake up, dems! Who will BO take down with him when his true origins are revealed?


poneill
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:32 am

In particular, what was the purpose of the DHS review of the passenger list which happens before every flight to the US? Why did it not capture all these flags PLUS the earlier information (which included his name)?


Yawnoc
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:34 am

You're looking at this through a pretty narrow lens. It was an intelligence failure that the only thing we knew about this guy, who had received training from an AQ affiliate and acquired explosives, was that he had broken off relations with his family. Let's face it, how many parents are going to rat out their children to the CIA for nonspecific concerns about terrorism? We need to have ways of finding out who the Abdulmutallabs are without relying on rumors and hearsay.


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Pingback posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:35 am

[...] Spencer Ackerman makes a compelling case that there might not be a culpable party, or parties, in connection with Abdulmutallab’s ability to board the flight in question: New information may surface. But based on this, is it really fair to point the finger at the intelligence community here? Abdulmutallab’s father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn’t know where his son was, but mightbe in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the [National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)], would someone have put two and two together — setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab’s visaor putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy’s dad says he’s dangerous; he’s Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough? [...]


slag
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:40 am

Nevermind my questions. Note to self: Click on link first, ask questions later.


stevelaudig
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 11:41 am

And if I wanted to collapse the system of travel I'd put out all kinds of false signals and clues. AQ will use a swiss banker flying from Munich to London on a Friday afternoon. Or how about an overweight american radio personality with drug problems flying to Hawaii on Thursday. He'll be hiding a bomb in his behind, as always.


marieburns
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

Pardon my ignorance (please!), but there should be a difference in the way people who are on a “no-fly” list, those who are on a “watch” list & those who aren't on ANY list are treated. To me “no-fly” means just that, but a person on a “watch” list should be, you know, watched. They should be subjected to thorough body & luggage searches.

If security personnel had searched Abdulmutallab, as they certainly should have, he would not have gotten on Flight 253, & passengers & crew would not have been endangered. I don't see how such a policy would affect the vast majority of travelers.

Years ago, pre 9/11, when I checked in for an Israeli flight, security officials pulled me aside & gave me the once-over because I looked different from my 8-year-old passport. That was fine with me — I was glad they were careful, & nobody else was inconvenienced.

The Constant Weader at http://www.RealityChex.com


boudin
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

Quoting Susan Ginsburg, formerly a member of the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee established by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (Bush administration) and Senior Counsel and Team Leader on the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission), where she was responsible for research and policy recommendations concerning the entry of the 9/11 hijackers, terrorist travel, and border controls, on last night's PBS Newshour:

“So, again, we have to look at what was available in the system. The — the cash payment from Nigeria would not necessarily be considered an indicator, because many airlines require cash payments in Africa because of the amount of fraud. So, cash payment, in and of itself, a lot of people fly without very much baggage these days because it's such a hassle. The trip was short. He had a round-trip ticket.”


MikeBoyScout
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

Spence, good points.

Unfortunately, you seem to collect more than your share of whack-a-doodle wingnut pants peeing commenters.


boudin
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

Mark, I see your post is time-stamped the same as SvergFour's, so perhaps you did not see his that states Abdulmutallab bought a round-trip ticket. As for the cash payment and no checked luggage questions, please see my reply to annascott2, above.

More of the concerns brought up here are discussed on the Newshour segment I mentioned above. You can find the transcript for that informative discussion, which also included Richard Ben-Veniste and James Thompson, both of whom served on the 9/11 Commission, here:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/terrorism/july-d…


Eric
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

Really? And how is this different than the shoe bomber? Same explosive material. Same effect. How did Bush prevent that?


mikestark
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

Information is supposed to filter up to NCTC in strength and specificity from the component intelligence agencies so that NCTC isn’t overwhelmed. If we want to say that there should be a lower standard for sharing with NCTC, fine. But then either NCTC needs to be given more resources, or we risk missing the next Abdulmutallab because NCTC’s analysts will be drowning in nonspecific data and trying to rope it to flotillas of additional information.

of course there would still be layers of bureaucracy at the newly expanded NCTC and the same filtering process would happen, albeit under a different umbrella. Either way, low-grade info will be weeded out.

Seems to me the real question is whether or not we want to recalibrate our sensitivity to information. If so, in order to avoid the diplomatic, security and trade difficulties you bring up, we'd need to see drastic increases in TSA staff if we are going to keep the planes running on time. Moreover, terrorism isn't limited to airplanes. We'd need more people monitoring the communications and movements of possible bad guys as they move about the globe.

I'm thinking that with a changed nature of the national security threat, it may be worth considering whether or not we need to continue spending billions on aircraft carriers and fighter jets, or if some of that money should be repurposed to hum-int. Of course, that's not what will happen though, is it?


cadfile
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

A system has a hard time with a rogue individual no matter who trained or supplied them. Saying the guy needed to be on the no-fly list after the known info was gathered is asking for clairvoyance and I don't know of any technology to policy that does that yet.

If his name had popped up as being a concern or if the airport screeners had done a pat down there is a good chance he might have been caught before the flight.


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Ernie
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

Was the warning from his father prefaced with: “You have been selected to receive this large, but curiously complicated cash award….”


Janie Sheppard
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

Isn't the problem that the CIA kept the info that it had to itself, which really is not its prerogative?

The National Counterterrorism Center should have been the agency to make the decision, presumably using the other information it had as well as the CIA report.


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AJStrata
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

Erik,

You don't know your history. The Shoe bomber came only a few months after 9-11, well before the NCTC was even dreamed up. And this is not the same class of bomb by a long shot.

My guess is your technical depth is pretty shallow?


Susan
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

Musicians, actors and scientists are denied visas to come to the US on much less information than the US had on Abdulmutallab. But, clearly, different standards are used there. Those people would harm us with words and knowledge. An accusation that somewhat is physically dangerous must be weighed much more carefully than the accusation that someone might be bringing in divergent ideas or “fusion” music to gthe US. Really, our priorities are seriously awry.


Name
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

Because noone with more than one braincell believes that.


Name
Comment posted December 31, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

What exactly should they be accepting responsibility for? Not happening to be standing right there to pat him down themselves? They can't claim the policy screw up…These were Bush's policies.

But that doesn't matter to you, does it? That doesn't vibe with your notion that Bush was god and the Democrats are evil.


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Pingback posted December 31, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

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polo
Comment posted January 1, 2010 @ 11:18 am

Good way of looking at it all. Ultimately — and not in hindsight for those with any regional understanding, which should inlcude intel communities — Nigerian Muslim + Yemen + Qaeda is obviously flaggable and should have required action.


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Comment posted January 1, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

LOL
Seedy, you are a carnival freak and I have a baroque sense of humor so—-thanks for the good belly laugh!


Daniel
Comment posted January 1, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

I don't know what kind of failure to call it, but if a guy who's already on a watch list also shows up with a one-way ticket purchased with cash and no luggage, that ought to trigger some action.


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Woesong
Comment posted January 2, 2010 @ 11:36 am

Sections of the 9-11 Commissison report read to me like the Keystone Kops, only it isn't funny. Myriads of three-letter codes rushing about and bumping into one another and accomplishing absolutely nothing after the last plane is down. And the solution always is to add ever more confusion in another overlayer. Dohbya wanted to plant another czar over the wars and rumors of wars, and if the news was worse, he'd appoint a czar of czars. How many intelligence agencies are there right now? And has anything improved from the day when Nixon himself sneered about Langley: “There's sixty thousand guys over there reading newspapers.”?

Reminds me of Ben Milam, who worked in the plant where I did in days gone by. Ben did not like contact with grease of his extrudor, but he didn't mind paint, so he just painted over the grease. Looked sparkly from a distance, and the whiteshirts didn't like to approach too closely to the machines. Win-Win.


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Remember, Bush kept us safe by putting Cat Stevens on the no-fly list.


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kmansfield
Comment posted January 3, 2010 @ 5:05 am

Who did the checking at the foreign airport? Who owns that company that is contracted to do the screening or the checkin? Who is is privy to the information systems or protocols used to check in a passenger or flag him as suspicious? Who is the man who helped him get on the plane without a Visa? Was he subject to a 48 hour security check before being allowed to buy the ticket or fly?
Did an insider that knew the ropes help him circumvent the ordinary screening process? This man did not get on the plane in the US. He got on the plane in Amsterdam.


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nrglaw
Comment posted January 6, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

No question in my mind that the information you describe in the hands of the agencies you mention should have been sufficient to ground any Nigerian who might be in Yemen, and whose father has recently pointed his finger at him as a threat.

The premise of the whole piece just doesn't hold up.


nrglaw
Comment posted January 7, 2010 @ 1:51 am

No question in my mind that the information you describe in the hands of the agencies you mention should have been sufficient to ground any Nigerian who might be in Yemen, and whose father has recently pointed his finger at him as a threat.

The premise of the whole piece just doesn't hold up.


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Intelcrats’ Awesomely Bad Pushback to ‘Top Secret America’ – Wired News » Intelligence, Community, Core, Directive, Circular, A-76 » Season Style
Pingback posted July 19, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

[...] difficult to arrange critical element from a mounds of invalid ephemera. As you saw with a box of would-be hoop skirt bomber, it’s tough for counterterrorists to scrupulously harmonize interpretation when they’re asked [...]


Intelcrats’ Awesomely Bad Pushback to ‘Top Secret America’ -… | Starting Internet Business
Pingback posted July 19, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

[...] tough to sort important material from the mounds of useless ephemera. As we saw with the case of would-be underwear bomber, it~s hard for counterterrorists to properly synthesize data when they~re asked to drink from a [...]


Intelcrats’ Awesomely Bad Pushback to ‘Top Secret America’ – Wired News | Muratayumi.com
Pingback posted July 19, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

[...] tough to sort important material from the mounds of useless ephemera. As we saw with the case of would-be underwear bomber, it’s hard for counterterrorists to properly synthesize data when they’re asked to drink from a [...]


Intelcrats’ Awesomely Bad Pushback to ‘Top Secret America’ – Wired News | Sharansky
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[...] difficult to arrange critical element from a mounds of invalid ephemera. As you saw with a box of would-be hoop skirt bomber, it’s tough for counterterrorists to scrupulously harmonize interpretation when they’re asked [...]


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More of the concerns brought up here are discussed on the Newshour segment I mentioned above. You can find the transcript for that informative discussion, which also included Richard Ben-Veniste and James Thompson, both of whom served on the 9/11


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If that had taken place, TSA might have discovered that the Brits had revoked the man’s visa. As a policy matter, if you have all of those indices in place,


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