After attempted airline bombing, effectiveness of intelligence reforms questioned

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

The failure of U.S. authorities to detect a plot to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day has reignited long-simmering concerns that intelligence reforms implemented five years ago remain inadequate to prevent terrorist attacks.

With disaster aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 averted by the bomb's malfunction, rather than by astute analysis of available information, some intelligence officials have suggested that the reforms were the cause of such lapses and not the solution to them.

President Obama has not singled out anyone for blame and has said that everyone involved has "taken responsibility" for their shortfalls. But the most intense scrutiny has been directed toward the centerpiece of the 2004 intelligence reorganization: the National Counterterrorism Center.

The NCTC and its parent, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), were created to force the 16-agency intelligence community to share information in ways that eluded it leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As the central repository for "all-source" intelligence on international terrorism, the NCTC is tasked with connecting the dots and advising the government on threats.

If dots were not connected concerning the airline bombing allegedly attempted by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on behalf of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Obama "knows where to look" for the culprit, said one intelligence official who, like many others across the intelligence community, is worried about where the blame will fall and appeared anxious to direct it elsewhere, but would address the subject only on the condition of anonymity.

Other intelligence officials defended the NCTC, countering that some agencies appear less interested in fixing the problems than in concealing their own failure to interpret and flag information they had that might have prevented the holiday incident.

"Anyone who believes that a relatively small organization like NCTC is going to connect every electron in each of those 30 databases is either disingenuous or naive, and certainly knows very little about how intelligence analysis actually works," said a second official who was similarly reluctant to speak for attribution.

In a statement released Saturday, NCTC Director Michael E. Leiter said that al-Qaeda continues "to refine their methods to test our defenses" and that thwarting the group is "our most sacred responsibility." After Obama said Tuesday that "the system failed," Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair released a statement saying that the intelligence community "got" the president's message and acknowledged failure.

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?"

Travers is still there, and the database has grown to about 550,000. Beyond connecting the dots, "the challenge we now face is that we are collecting so much information," Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.) said last week of the system he helped devise as the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which first proposed the reorganization, said the solution was not reducing the powers of the DNI and the NCTC but enhancing them. "Does the DNI have the proper tools?" he asked in an interview. "Does the DNI need to be strengthened?"

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company