Two attacks highlight counterterrorism's bureaucratic bog
The Central Intelligence Agency should be asking some painful questions this week about its performance: How could a suicide bomber have flown to Detroit despite a strong warning to a CIA station that he might be a terrorist? How could a Jordanian double agent have penetrated a CIA base in Afghanistan and killed seven agency employees?
Talking to veteran counterterrorism officers, I hear a common theme that unites these two disastrous lapses: The CIA has adopted bureaucratic procedures that, while intended to avoid mistakes, may actually heighten the risks. In the words of one CIA veteran, "You have a system that is overwhelmed."
The two cases are very different. Yet they both illustrate what can happen when intelligence managers are eager for results but worried about risks. The consequence is a breakdown in tradecraft that can have fatal consequences. Meanwhile, an intelligence reorganization that was supposed to improve efficiency has made the bureaucracy problem worse.
The Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a story of clues that were lost in a blizzard of information. The young man's father delivered a stark warning in November to CIA officials in Nigeria: His son had become radicalized in Yemen and was a security threat. Agency officers took the appropriate action, bureaucratically speaking -- they alerted the State Department and sent messages up the CIA's chain of command.
The CIA officer in Nigeria sent a cable to the agency's Counterterrorism Center, which gathered biographical data and a photo. Copies went to the National Counterterrorism Center, a separate (and arguably redundant) bureaucratic entity that reports to the director of national intelligence. Analysts in either of those two centers could have pressed to add Abdulmutallab's name to the no-fly list. But they didn't.
State Department officers also did the right thing, technically speaking: They put Abdulmutallab's name into their "Visa Viper" system, for higher-ups to review. The Nigerian was now floating in a sea of data called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, with 500,000 names (compared to about 4,000 on the no-fly list).
How did the big database get so clogged? My sources guess that embassies worldwide send an average of one Visa Viper a day, and there are 180 embassies. You can see the overload: Everyone is covering their backside by sending warnings, but nobody has time to ring the alarm bell.
"The problem is that the system is clogged with information. Most of it isn't of interest, but people are afraid not to put it in," explains one agency veteran. The Counterterrorism Center is supposed to review more than 120 databases; senior officials there are supposed to process 10,000 to 12,000 pieces of information a day; large stations can receive several thousand cables a day. No wonder the real threats get lost in the noise.
The bombing in Khost is a much more tragic case of good intentions gone awry. The question to ask is why the suicide bomber was allowed into the agency's base in eastern Afghanistan. Agency officers traditionally meet their sources at clandestine locations -- "safe houses," as they're known, and car pickups -- outside an embassy or military base. The reason is security: The agent shouldn't see many CIA faces, and vice versa.
But those standard agent-handling rules have been violated routinely, in Iraq and now Afghanistan, because senior officials have concluded it's too dangerous outside the wire. "At least 90 percent of all agent meetings are conducted on bases," estimates one CIA veteran. The agency wants to protect its people, understandably -- but the system actually works to increase vulnerability.
The Khost tragedy shows that the CIA needs to take the counterintelligence threat from al-Qaeda more seriously. Intelligence reports over the past year have warned that groups linked with al-Qaeda were sending double agents to penetrate CIA bases in Afghanistan. In this case, knowing the agency's hunger for intelligence about the location of top leaders, al-Qaeda "tripled" a Jordanian double agent who apparently claimed to have just such information -- and dangled him before the Khost team. And then disaster struck.
The brave CIA officers serving overseas deserve a better system than this. The late CIA Director William Casey insisted that employees read the management classic "In Search of Excellence" to encourage every officer to take personal responsibility for solving problems, rather than kicking them on to the next guy in line.
CIA Director Leon Panetta should use these searing events to foster a culture of initiative and accountability at a CIA that wants to do the job -- but that needs leadership and reform.