Yesterday’s release by the White House of the unclassified portion of the review of security failures that led to the nearly successful Christmas Day airline bombing, show an Intelligence Community (IC) that is little better today than it was on 9/11 at understanding and dealing with the terrorist threat. The self-serving statement provided by the White House’s czar for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan, that this is a tough problem and we are dealing with an agile adversary, only serves to underscore the entrenched nature of the problems that affect the IC. The truth, as the president pointed out, was that plenty of information existed on which to identify and stop the Christmas Day terrorist.
What is much more significant is that the IC appears to have been caught by surprise by the aggressiveness of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This despite the fact that AQAP was behind the failed attempt to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, deputy interior minister and commander of the Saudi anti-terror campaign in Yemen five months ago. What makes this event even more interesting now is that the would-be assassin hid a bomb in his underwear. There was also the connection between an Al Qaeda radical cleric Anwar al Awlakia and the Fort Hood killer, Major Hassan. But the IC believed that any attacks would be overseas. What is clearly evident from the information now available is that the IC did not understand or appreciate the nature of the adversary.
Lest we think that this is a problem relevant only to Yemen or plots to blow up airliners, a recently published report by the Center for a New American Security indicates that the IC is equally inadequate when it comes to the information required to prosecute the worldwide war on terror. In this report, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in Afghanistan, Major General Michael T. Flynn, his advisor, Captain Matt Pottinger and the Senior Advisor for Civilian/Military Integrations at International Security Assistance Force, Mr. Paul Batchelor, blasts the IC for its inability to support the effort in that country: “Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.”
An equally devastating critique of the IC is provided by Reuel Marc Gerecht in today’s Wall Street Journal. Last week’s successful suicide bombing attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan was conducted by a Jordanian double agent who had fooled both Jordanian intelligence and the CIA. The spate of recent attacks by Al Qaeda show an organization that studies, learns and innovates, something that Gerecht suggests is not true of the CIA. He goes on to say that the real problem is that the CIA personnel are more often than not mediocre, too young, lacking experience in the region and fluency in the local languages.
The president spoke about systemic failures, pointing primarily to problems with exploiting data bases and passing information. The problems, in fact, are much worse. In reality, the U.S. counterterrorism campaign suffers from strategic fragmentation. We have an IC that still approaches the world as if it were the Cold War. It does not know what to do with ambiguous warnings. There is the fruitless search for “smoking guns” and “slam dunks.” The Justice Department has chosen to treat terrorism as a criminal problem, creating all the dilemmas associated with the requirements for probable cause, chains of custody and the rights of defendants versus illegal combatants.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is slow to respond to threats, unimaginative, technologically backwards and more concerned about citizen rights to privacy than their right to life. DHS’s problems are compounded by the administration’s decision to shift from a focus on terrorism to one that treats all threats equally. The all-hazards strategy simply dilutes the already limited attention span and energy of DHS leaders at a time when the terrorist threat appears to be morphing. You cannot get intelligence “systems” to work when some elements treat the problem as a war, others as a criminal activity and still others as a marginal nuisance that interferes with its responsibilities to keep the trains running on time.
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