Intelligence Failures

Posted Jan. 08, 2010, at 6:15 p.m.

President Barack Obama is right to focus on fixing the intelligence failures that allowed a Nigerian man to try to blow up a plane over Detroit. Determined terrorists will continue to try to smuggle bomb-making materials onto planes no matter what security screening improvements are made. Keeping these men off airplanes is a more direct way to solve the problem.

As the president acknowledged, there were many opportunities to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane to the United States. All of them were missed, and it was a failure to detonate the explosive mixture hidden in his underwear that saved the 278 people aboard the Detroit-bound plane.

Ensuring similar red flags aren’t missed in the future must be a top priority for the White House and Congress.

“I will accept that intelligence by its nature is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed and leveraged,” the president said Tuesday. “That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.”

The president must follow up those strong words with strong actions. He moved in that direction Thursday in announcing improvements that would be made to intelligence gathering and dissemination. Also on Thursday, the White House released a declassified review of the Christmas incident.

The Nigerian’s father came to the U.S. embassy there in November to warn that his son had expressed radical views. His name was added to a database of more than 50,000 names of people with suspected terrorist ties, but he was not moved to a much smaller list of people who should undergo additional security screening nor to the even shorter no-fly list. This was because the information from his father was not considered serious enough.

While Britain had revoked Mr. Abdulmutallab’s visa and placed him on its watch list, his multiple entry U.S. visa was not revoked. Part of the reason his U.S. visa was not revoked was that his name was spelled wrong when State Department officials reviewed his visa status. Checking multiple spellings simply makes sense.

Mr. Abdulmutallab paid for his one-way airline ticket in cash and had no luggage.

The changes the president announced, including the quicker sharing of information and reviews of people who already have visas, not just those who apply for new ones, will help fix some of these failures.

But as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Simon, a former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council, points out, simply the volume of intelligence information is a problem. With thousands of pieces of information to sift through, some important ones may be missed or not passed along quickly enough. A specific policy is not likely to change this. Instead, those taking and reviewing the information must be smarter about sifting the truly dangerous information from the more mundane.

The bottom line, Mr. Simon says, is to sort through the lists and databases and quickly get the relevant information to the airlines “who are the ones at the end of the day who have to keep people off an airplane.”

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