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Setting impossible standards on intelligence

Retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair isn't solely to blame for U.S. intelligence failures.
Retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair isn't solely to blame for U.S. intelligence failures. (Alex Wong/getty Images)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Senate analysis of the intelligence community's handling of the would-be Christmas bomber bears a closer reading in the wake of the replacement of Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence.

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Disclosure that the White House was seeking an alternative to Blair, one day after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released an unclassified executive summary of its report, appeared to associate the two. Somehow, it was concluded that Blair, whose responsibilities included directly overseeing the National Counterterroism Center (NCTC), should take the blame for the NCTC's failure to prevent the 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from boarding a Detroit-bound plane in the Netherlands with a bomb in his underpants.

The 2004 statute that created Blair's DNI position also set the NCTC's mission: "to serve as the primary organization in the U.S. Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the U.S. Government pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism." It is to "disseminate terrorist threat information including current terrorist threat analysis to the President, Vice President" and other senior administration officials and appropriate congressional panels.

Although the CIA, FBI, and Defense, State, Treasury and Homeland Security departments have counterterrorism analytic units -- some even with information-gathering operations -- the assumption is that all of the data are passed on to NCTC.

The law, by the way, specifically says that the NCTC director "may not direct the execution of counterterrorism operations."

The Senate committee's list identifying "points of failure" shows that not all relevant information from some agencies landed at the NCTC.

Perhaps the leading example was the State Department's failure to notify the NCTC in its initial reporting that Abdulmutallab -- whose father had reported him missing in November and suspected "involvement with Yemeni-based extremists" -- had an outstanding U.S. visa.

This initial fact, if contained in State's first notice to the NCTC, would have raised the importance of his status. Instead, Abdulmutallab became one of hundreds of new names sent to the NCTC that day. The Senate panel blurs this in its report by focusing on State's failure -- as well as NCTC's -- to revoke the visa. Neither the department nor NCTC discovered the visa until it was too late.

Two other agencies also failed to report important relevant information.

When the CIA received State's limited report on the visit of Abdulmutallab's father, a CIA regional division "did not search databases containing reports related to Abdulmutallab," the Senate report notes. Meanwhile, an analyst at the CIA's counterterrorism center conducted only a "limited name search," which failed to uncover "key reports on Abdulmutallab," the panel's review said. These reports were never sent to the NCTC.

And at the National Security Agency, the nation's electronic intercept agency, there were reports "partly identifying Abdulmutallab" that were not connected to State's limited material, and the agency failed "to pursue [new] collection opportunities that could have provided information on Abdulmutallab," the committee said. This again kept relevant information from the NCTC.

How can the NCTC perform its role, which by law is "to serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups," if its analysts are unaware that additional intelligence exists at other agencies? The committee's answer to that, listed as failure 10, was that the "NCTC's watchlisting office did not conduct additional research to find additional derogatory information to place Abdulmutallab on a watchlist."

True, NCTC analysts have access to most agency databases. But with hundreds of names arriving each day, which name does the NCTC select to then begin its search of 16 other agency databases? Especially when the expectation is that each agency has searched its own.

In the wake of the Abdulmutallab affair, before the committee report appeared, the NCTC, in conjunction with the White House, set up a "pursuit group" of about 40 analysts who have been pulled out of the daily routine to follow threat threads, be they names, locations, phone numbers or travel -- whatever it is that catches the eye of senior NCTC officials who review reports each morning. The "pursuit group" analysts can go back to agencies for additional data checks and even request additional information or collection.

No additional legislative reform is needed. The community is still trying to absorb the 2004 statute.

Linking the White House request for Blair to leave to the committee's concerns over the Abdulmutallab episode would set a standard that no future head of any intelligence agency could meet. The failures were, in the first instance, human errors, and there will be more, over which no DNI could have direct responsibility. It would, in some ways, be much like calling for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to resign or be fired if sanctions against Iran do not work, or the Arabs and Israelis don't reach agreement in their talks.


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