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Is This Really an Intelligence Failure? Real Talk on Abdulmutallab

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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