Garbage In, Garbage Out

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Thursday, January 07, 2010 at 9:32 am

Karen DeYoung’s Washington Post story today isn’t actually about the 2004 intelligence-community reforms failing to stop the would-be Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bomber, despite its headline. It’s actually about how one approach to implementing the critique President Obama offered Tuesday for why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to get on Northwest Flight 253 will make things worse.

Obama thinks the dots should have been connected. But the dots were insufficient in specificity, even when viewed in aggregation, under current rules for placing an individual on the no-fly list. And on Saturday, Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, made an empty statement that gestured at taking the heat for the undesirable outcome of Abdulmutallab’s boarding the plane.

As I’ve been reporting for days, some intelligence officials argue the solution isn’t to increase the number of people on the pre-no-fly terrorism watch lists becuase that might do little aside from opening the firehose of data on full blast. For instance, here’s DeYoung:

Regardless of where fault is ultimately assessed, several officials and experts said the failure to uncover the plot confirmed fears that the massive amounts of terrorism-related information being gathered since the 2001 attacks might outgrow the capacity to manage it. The CIA, the FBI, the military, and numerous Cabinet departments and independent agencies are flooded every day with new data from the field that is available to the NCTC.

“The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control,” Russell E. Travers, in charge of the NCTC database of terrorism “entities,” said in a 2007 interview as his list topped 400,000 and continued to expand. “Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?”

Glenn Greenwald had more on that garbage-in-garbage-out problem yesterday in a very perceptive post.

In fairness, Obama isn’t saying “there needs to be more dots.” He’s saying there needs to be better connections of the dots. Well, OK, but that’s asking the intelligence community to really strain the amount of information there was about Abdulmutallab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In practice, what the experience of the last five years has indicated is that the answer will be “there needs to be more dots.” And that, as DeYoung’s piece points out, makes the problem worse.

Today the White House will release the preliminary findings of its Flight 253 reviews. National Security Adviser Jim Jones said we’ll feel “a certain shock” when we see how many dots there were that should have been connected. And I hope there are some new dots there. Because right now, the only shock I feel concerns how the White House isn’t leveling with the public about what the standards are for placing someone on a no-fly list and is instead placing unrealistic expectations on the intelligence community.

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