After Detroit, a big security gap and a less than reassuring response

Friday, January 8, 2010

AN ADMINISTRATION REPORT on the failed Christmas Day bombing portrays grave failings across the sprawling national intelligence apparatus -- failings that indicate a problem far more serious than a single terrorist who fell through the bureaucratic cracks. Eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the creation of an intelligence architecture that was supposed to improve sharing and acting on information, the United States is better at collecting, disseminating and analyzing intelligence. But, as Thursday's report shows, nowhere near good enough.

Intelligence agencies had information sufficient to uncover the plot but failed to put it all together. The evolving threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen was treated as a matter for strategic analysis rather than a problem demanding immediate action. The technology is still -- still! -- not up to the task of helping make sense out of mountains of data. Most appalling, there was a failure of basic management and follow-up: "There was not a comprehensive or functioning process for tracking terrorist threat reporting and actions taken such that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads" about potential terrorist plots. As one administration official described it to us, "One of the problems is when this threat information comes across, it's kind of a jump ball" about who should handle it and in which agency. If no one jumps, the ball may not be picked up.

This lack of clear lines of responsibility is disturbing in any business. It is inexcusable when national security is involved. That the president of the United States should have to tell the Central Intelligence Agency it needs to "issue guidance aimed at ensuring the timely distribution of intelligence reports" is unsettling, to put it mildly. What is it there for? It is mind-boggling that the president felt the need to instruct the Director of National Intelligence to "take further steps to enhance the rigor and raise the standard of tradecraft intelligence analysis, especially analysis designed to uncover and prevent terrorist plots." Either this is boilerplate or the country is in a world of trouble.

And so it is fair to ask whether President Obama's response is commensurate with the gravity of the problem he outlined. The key piece of his directive was aimed at solving the problem of the neglected jump ball. "I'm directing that our intelligence community immediately begin assigning specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively -- not just most of the time, but all of the time," he said. Administration officials argue that fixing this lapse would have helped stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Flight 253. But would it? The problem in a world of seemingly limitless information is determining which threats to deem "high priority." If everything is investigated, will there be resources to investigate the most credible threats adequately?

Mr. Obama's solutions have the air of the small bore: a "training course" for the National Security Agency; a "dedicated capability responsible for enhancing record information on possible terrorists . . . for watchlisting purposes." Perhaps a series of individual tweaks will do the job. But the administration report suggests that the problem is less tractable than Mr. Obama has acknowledged. His depiction Thursday of the shortcomings was admirably honest and more frightening than previously portrayed. His proposed fixes did not entirely reassure.

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