It is now clear that the U.S. Government, not just the Intelligence Community but other relevant agencies, had sufficient information about the Nigerian would-be aircraft bomber to take action. It was not just that his own father had “outed” him to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. There were communications intercepts by the National Security Agency (NSA) all the way back to August that spoke of “Umar Farouk” and “the Nigerian,” as well as an anti-U.S. attack to take place over the Christmas holiday. Published sources state that there were additional intelligence reports of direct contacts between a Nigerian and the head of Al Qaeda on the Saudi Peninsula. There was information in data bases at the State Department, FBI and National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) that the same Nigerian had a visa to the United States. Finally, there was information that this individual had been denied a visa to enter the United Kingdom because he claimed to be attending a bogus educational institution.
So the problem was not the information, which as is the case with most terrorist plots is ambiguous. It was the attitude of the individuals and organizations that had to analyze and transmit it. What should a Foreign Service officer, NSA analyst, NCTC official or even private citizen do with ambiguous information? For intelligence officers there are really three problems. The first is the danger of swamping the system with useless information and erroneous warning. The second problem is the danger of raising the number of false positive reports. One of the critical measures of merit for any sensor system, whether technology or human-based, is the number of false positives. False positives are reports that something suspicious has been found that later turn out to be false. They tax the resources of the response system and lower its credibility.
The third problem is political correctness. What is not addressed in any of the public commentary is why no consideration apparently was given to the fact that the subject of concern was a radicalized, middle class, young, Muslim male who had traveled widely in the West, as well as to Yemen. The Nigerian bomber fit the profile of the 9/11 hijackers. If those that had to deal with the available information on the bomber had used such a template, it is likely that all the ambiguous bits of information would have more readily come together and set off alarm bells. But to do so would be to profile, and this technique has fallen into disrepute in the West. So everyone waited to get receive a “smoking gun” piece of intelligence in order to act.
The answer to the challenge of creating actionable intelligence — the term of art for information that causes the government to act now instead of waiting — is not connecting more dots, aggregating more information or passing it faster between government agencies. The answer is a change in attitude. It is to recognize and apply the well-recognized and useful templates or profiles of likely Islamic radical terrorists when evaluating ambiguous information.
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