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Airline Plot Exposes Issues With Intelligence Analysis

January 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The November attack on Fort Hood and the failed plot to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas have renewed questions on how U.S. intelligence is analyzed and tracked. Judy Woodruff talks to a panel for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, how the near-success of that would-be terrorist has raised questions of how well intelligence is being gathered and analyzed.

It began last November with the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas. The accused gunman, Army Major Nidal Hasan, had escaped the notice of U.S. intelligence officials, despite signs of his growing Islamic radicalism.

Then came Christmas Day, and the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest airliner. Again, the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and his possible ties to al-Qaida had evaded detection. And, just days after that, seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan were killed by a suicide bomber from Jordan, an apparent double agent working for al-Qaida.

All three incidents raised questions about whether the intelligence community is doing its job, the same question posed by the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. For decades, American intelligence-gathering agencies worked through traditional and separate channels.

RICK NELSON, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Information sharing wasn’t a priority for many of these departments and agencies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Nelson is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

RICK NELSON: There were information sharing restrictions in some regards of what levels of information could be shared with other entities that didn’t have the perceived need to know. And it made communicating very, very difficult.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, after 9/11, a new Department of Homeland Security was created, combining 22 agencies. Then, the 9/11 Commission pinpointed a lack of intelligence sharing, leading to a further sweeping reorganization.

The centerpiece came in 2004, when President Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act into law. It created the director of national intelligence, a post now held by Dennis Blair, to channel all intelligence-related information to the president.

The director would get his information from a new National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, acting as a central repository for all-source intelligence on international terrorism. Sixteen separate agencies and departments now feed information to the NCTC, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.

The goal of the center, which President Obama visited in October, is to increase communication among different departments and agencies, like historic rivals the CIA and the FBI. But the center’s mandate is limited.

RICK NELSON: NCTC is not an operational arm. Operational activities still reside with departments and agencies. For example, the State Department retains authority to revoke visas. The military obviously has the authority to conduct combat operations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When the new administration came to power, little changed in the intelligence structure.

And, in his statement yesterday, Mr. Obama offered this assessment of how that structure worked in the foiled airliner attack.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack. Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, the president has not ordered his national security and intelligence team to change their structure, but to do their jobs better and faster.

And the director of national intelligence, Blair, sent out his own memo, among the recommendations, assigning clear lines of responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats, distributing intelligence reports more quickly and widely, and speeding up additions to the terrorist and no-fly watch lists.

CIA Director Leon Panetta also instructed his agency to get information out faster to the broader intelligence community and to increase the number of analysts focused on Yemen and Africa.

For more on the state of the U.S. intelligence community, we turn to two who served on the 9/11 Commission, former United States Senator Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington State, and Deputy U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton administration Jamie Gorelick.

Good to have you both with us.

Jamie Gorelick, I’m going to start with you.

Have the reforms instituted in the intelligence community since 9/11 worked?

JAMIE GORELICK: They have worked, but they have not worked perfectly. And that’s kind of obvious from what’s happened.

Clearly, having an all-source center, a national center to fuse all the information, is critical. But you — you still have people reading the intelligence, and maybe not reading it as well as they should. You still have people providing the intelligence in ways that perhaps don’t have the flags on them that they need. And a lot of this, Judy, is just blocking and tackling. It’s the hard work of execution. And that is apparently where we had failures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Gorton, how do you see whether these reforms have worked?

SLADE GORTON: I agree with Jamie, but I will go one step further.

In this case, it wasn’t a failure to collect intelligence. It was only partially a favor to — a failure to share intelligence. It was a failure, I think, to have the kind of standards and feelings of urgency that were necessary to do something about it.

The rules under which the intelligence agencies were operating didn’t allow this man’s visa to be pulled, didn’t allow him to be put on a no-fly list just because his father came in and gave us a warning in Lagos. It should have done so automatically.

And I think, from what the president said yesterday it will in the future. In other words, the burden of proof to take action was too high. I think now, as a result of this near disaster, it won’t be quite so high in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So Senator Gorton, it sounds like you are saying you essentially agree with the president that it wasn’t collecting and sharing; it was the analysis, understanding, and then you added the urgency.

SLADE GORTON: The action. Analysis and so on is a part of it, but the decisiveness in taking action on the kind of intelligence we had was a great shortcoming.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jamie Gorelick, when the president said he doesn’t think the apparatus needs to be overhauled, or even tinkered with — he basically thinks people just need to do their jobs better — is it really that simple?

JAMIE GORELICK: Well, it is that simple.

But I would also agree with Slade that there are some policies that need to be changed. The burden of proof for putting someone on the no-fly list is too high. If someone is identified as al-Qaida, they don’t necessarily go on the no-fly list. So, there are some tweaks and changes that need to be made.

But we have an instinct in this country, every time there is a problem, to move boxes around. And, honestly, what — most of success in life, in my view, is about execution. And we just need to execute better.

Slade is right that we need to lean into the intelligence that we have. And I think that’s the other thing that comes out of this report from the White House, which is that we had intelligence and we didn’t lean in to making sure that all the actions that were taken — that should have been taken were taken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean “lean in”?

JAMIE GORELICK: Well, what I mean by that is, if you look at something that might be a problem, you can do one of two things with it. You can see if it becomes a problem, or you can really try to prevent it from becoming a problem.

And that’s what I mean by leaning into it. What could we be doing more than we are doing to track this down, to make sure that a bad actor doesn’t get on a plane, that a bad thing doesn’t happen?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You both seem to…

SLADE GORTON: Yes, let me…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

SLADE GORTON: Let me, if I can just follow up on that.

That’s right. Remember, going through that security line to get on a plane is the very last line of defense. We need to be pushing that line of defense out further. We need to be determining that some people should never get in the line in the first place, shouldn’t have a visa, shouldn’t be allowed on planes at all. We have got to go after this kind of situation at the source.

And if I have a shortcoming that is still present there, it is the fact that we didn’t interrogate this man long enough. We far too soon decided to charge him in a civil court, when I think we could have gotten much more information about his sources if we had waited, treated him as an unlawful combatant, and interrogated him thoroughly before we decided how to try him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I do want to ask you both one question about the structure of the intelligence community. And that comes out of a Wall Street Journal editorial today.

And I will start with you, Senator Gorton.

Essentially, they are saying, you know, they are complimenting the president, but they are going on to say the defense — the director of national intelligence, the apparatus under him has become such a big bureaucracy, it spends a lot of its time essentially duplicating what the CIA does.

Is there a legitimate argument there?

SLADE GORTON: It may be that that is somewhat too large an agency.

But I will have to say — and I think Jamie agrees with me on this — the Congress didn’t adopt all of our recommendations with respect to the DNI. The Congress didn’t give the DNI as much authority as we thought he ought to have. And we may see some of the shortcomings here, as a result of the fact that there are still rival towers of power in the intelligence agency, and that can’t be all the DNI’s fault. He — I think he needs more authority than he has.

JAMIE GORELICK: I would make two points to follow up on Slade.

Number one, we had four basic commissions that we wanted to see the DNI have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, this is the director of national intelligence, the new thing that was…

JAMIE GORELICK: Yes, the person — we thought, you have got 16 intelligence agencies. You need to have some grownup above all of them to make rules where they are in conflict.

So, one of those places of conflict is the one that Slade alludes to, which is budget. The DNI didn’t get budget authority over the defense intelligence apparatus, which is a very big piece of the budget.

But we also said, make the rules for information sharing. Make the rules for personnel sharing. Make the rules for a common technology infrastructure.

I would like to see the DNI focus on that, and not replicating a lot of what goes on in the intelligence community, and particularly in the CIA. So, I think The Wall Street Journal editorial on this subject makes a good — a fair point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn to the other two incidents that we mentioned, Senator Gorton, in the opening segment, and that is, of course, the Fort Hood shootings — Major Hasan, nothing was done about him — and then this terrible incident in Afghanistan in the last week, the death of seven CIA agents.

Where — what fell apart, what didn’t work in those instances?

SLADE GORTON: Well, let me just, looking as an observer who has read the news stories on it, and with no extra information, start with the second of those two first.

Obviously, there was too great a degree of trust on the part of someone there in Afghanistan about this man because, presumably, he had given us some decent intelligence in the past. And, so, he got into that building and in among those seven or more people without being checked out at all.

Now, that — I think that was just a failure in following their own policies. It was a terrible and a tragic failure. But I can’t imagine that this is something that we allow to happen on an everyday basis.

On the first one, it looks to me like there was a certain degree of political correctness involved. A lot of people in the service itself felt great suspicion about that doctor, but they were afraid to say anything about it. They were afraid they would be criticized. They were afraid they would be called racist. I hope that isn’t going to happen in the future, but I believe that that contributed to Fort Hood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it almost as if every lapse points to a different problem?

JAMIE GORELICK: Yes, but, you know, you…

SLADE GORTON: Sure.

JAMIE GORELICK: … can’t expect perfect execution. You have to strive for it. So, we learn from mistakes. But these mistakes are very, very costly.

I mean, the thing that haunts me about the Fort Hood matter is that the imam, al-Awlaki, it was a loose thread in the report that Slade and I and others collaborated on. I mean, he was running a mosque on — one mosque on the West Coast, and then later a mosque on the East Coast, that helped the 9/11 conspirators.

And, so we have to — when I spoke earlier, Judy, about leaning in, I think, if you find someone like him, and he has been the subject of attention in the intelligence community, you follow every lead surrounding him. And I hope we’re doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are — we know these are issues we’re going to come back to. And we want to thank both of you for being with us.

Senator Slade Gorton, Jamie Gorelick, thank you both.

JAMIE GORELICK: Our pleasure.