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Intelligence Panel Considers Needs in Security Overhaul

December 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The discussion over failed security measures that led to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight continues with three veterans of the intelligence community. Jeffrey Brown moderates the debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, first, President Obama received a preliminary report today about last week’s attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner. In a written statement issued in Hawaii, where he’s on vacation, the president said he plans to hold White House meetings next Tuesday to discuss improved intelligence-sharing between government agencies. And he repeated that human and systemic failures had occurred in the run-up to the attempted attack.

Last night, we talked to former members of the 9/11 Commission about all this. Tonight, I’m joined by veterans of the intelligence community.

Charles Allen served in the CIA and as undersecretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security. Tyler Drumheller was director of CIA operations for Europe, among other posts. Paul Pillar served in a variety of intelligence analysis and management positions.

And welcome to all of you.

Mr. Allen, I will start with you.

After 9/11, there was a lot of reorganization in the intelligence community. Has it worked? What do we know? What do we now know?

CHARLES ALLEN: I think it’s worked very well overall. Obviously, there’s still more work to be done, based on this event that occurred on Christmas Day.

But the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act said we should establish a National Counterterrorism Center, and it should — all intelligence agencies should ensure that the information flows freely and fully, and that information is shared, even the most sensitive, with the National Counterterrorism Center.

And we do this on a regular basis. It is not perfect. There — a lot of cables flow in every day from all over the world. They flow from many sources — military, intelligence, law enforcement — and all that data has to be looked at, assessed, and determined, does this really pose a direct threat to the interests of the United States at home and abroad?

This is a very large problem. We need to streamline this further. I worked in the previous administration to work under the Homeland Security Council and other agencies, the intelligence community, to refine, streamline the intelligence watch lists, to make sure that information did not flow — sometimes, information from non-intelligence agencies does not flow as quickly and as easily into intelligence channels.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mr. Drumheller, what does the latest incident tell you about how things are working?

TYLER DRUMHELLER, former chief of European operations, CIA: I think what Charlie said is true. They — there were changes that needed to be made. They needed to draw all the information together.

My concern is that, as things happen in Washington, the setting up of this National Counterterrorism Center and the director of national intelligence staff has grown bureaucratically, and that itself has created problems in processing the information.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean a new bureaucracy.

TYLER DRUMHELLER: A new bureaucracy in between the old community and the collectors.

And I think one of the key pieces for me — and I was an operations officer — is the — is the interplay between the analytical people and the operations people collecting the information in the field. And that’s something that has to be tightened up.

The idea is good. The idea is perfect. Charlie has got a — Charlie hit it right on the head, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. And one thing, this is an area where, bureaucratically, it’s better to be smaller and smarter, rather than…

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pillar, the idea, of course, was to help the information flow, to allow everybody to talk to each other.

PAUL PILLAR, former CIA official: I think the very fact that many of the things we heard five years ago, before this reorganization was accomplished with much fanfare, we’re hearing today, about connecting dots, about information flow, and so on, suggests that things have not worked as well as they should have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do you think the problems are?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, I think Tyler has touched on part of this. We did have two new bureaucracies established in the reorganization five years ago, the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center.

And this was despite the fact that what we were hearing from the 9/11 Commission and others was about the problems of information flowing across bureaucratic lines, about stovepiping. So, what did we do? We created two new sets of bureaucratic lines.

CHARLES ALLEN: I think one of the problems is just the sheer flow of information. All information flows in. A lot of it, it may be fabrications, rumors. People are trying to absorb a vast amount.

One of the things I think really there needs to be improvement at the NCTC, the National Counterterrorism Center, is that interchange between operations officers, collectors, and analysts whether it is technical intelligence collection or human source collection.

I think we miss some of that because of the distance between operators and collectors and analysts. Only when you have the analysts interacting with the collectors, I think, you get the synergy that is required. Analytic tradecraft is lacking in the community. I think we need a lot more intense training. And we don’t have it.

And I think what Paul said, pointing out to some of the — some of the issues involved, gets back to, fundamentally, this closeness between collectors and analysts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Drumheller, you served as a station chief. In this case — take this case in Nigeria — what is supposed — what was supposed to happen when the father walked in to express concerns?

TYLER DRUMHELLER: Well, what — and it varies from embassy to embassy, because you have to work out the arrangement with the embassy.

But, normally, the — a walk-in of this type would be handled either by the CIA personnel or by the embassy security officer. Then, you would write up a report from what he said, especially given who he was, a very prominent Nigerian, well-known to the embassy, obviously, with this information. They sent the — and this is what they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: They did that.

TYLER DRUMHELLER: They did that.

It went in — this information — and I think Charlie and Paul will back me up on this — these cable goes automatically to the National Counterterrorism Center anyway. I think there is an idea that this has to go through CIA and be released. This information actually goes out automatically to the recipients.

But then you have to have a — to make it really work effectively, you have to be able to have an analyst, an experienced analyst, call up, be able to call up or send a message directly to the station and say, who is this guy, what was it like, how did it work, and have the station chief be able to follow up and go back and say, what happened to that report I sent?

That is a very important part of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because there are always going to be various pieces of evidence, as there was in this case, right? And somebody has got to pull it together.


And we should realize what — what we always do after these incidents, whether it is a real attack or a close call, like this one. We are indulging in retrospective hindsight. And we’re dealing with pieces of information that, in retrospect, in hindsight, look perfectly clear: Oh, this should have been seized upon.

We have to remember that this is amid a flood of information that all these agencies have to deal with every day, Department of Homeland Security, NCTC, the center we have talked about, CIA, and others.

And, in real time, dealing with these reams of information, these things aren’t necessarily going to stand out, as they do so obviously when we conduct this exercise in hindsight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your sense, though, Mr. Allen is that the changes that have occurred are in the right direction? And, so, is it — I mean, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Is it tweaking that process now? Or what needs to be done next?

CHARLES ALLEN: I think we have to be, as I said earlier, more streamlined, more transparent, in ways that gets the analyst much closer to the people doing the collecting.

And I think there’s — we’re a degree of separation with the formation of the National Counterterrorism Center, even though there are a lot of CIA officers and FBI officers working in the NCTC as it is. But there still has to be greater synergy and greater streamlining of the movement of data and the back-and-forth, because, when I was at Homeland Security, I found we were reacting to almost everything that came in, rather than looking at the real wheat among all that vast chaff, that flood of information that Paul talked about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. But are you worried enough about the — what you call this new bureaucracy, that you think it should be lessened…

TYLER DRUMHELLER: Cleaned out, cleared out a little bit, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … cleaned out, right.

TYLER DRUMHELLER: Yes, I think it’s what Charlie is talking about and I think he says. Transparency is that you need to remove these layers of Washington — Washington work in between and get down…

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that possible?

TYLER DRUMHELLER: I hope so, because the real issue here is — and one of the things I hope they avoid doing in this case — is looking at this as looking for a system, a cookie-cutter system that will fix all of this, because it really comes down to the individuals working out, the analyst and the intelligence officers, and getting them the opportunity to make the judgments, not just in committee and not just based on weighted factors, but as individuals who have an expertise in it, not look for systematic solution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, people do look for systematic solutions.

PAUL PILLAR: Of course. And we have this appetite for some sort of fix to a bureaucratic or other kind of problem. And we like to have this comforting sense that, if we fix the problem, then we’re not going to have a recurrence.

That simply is not the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have a minute here, but I do want to ask you about the events in Afghanistan. You heard Joby Warrick talk about the — there’s, of course, the terrible human loss.

CHARLES ALLEN: It’s terrible.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does it do for — for the loss of knowledge, the loss of ability in a place like Afghanistan?

CHARLES ALLEN: Well, I think we are talking about some very experienced officers who were killed yesterday. And it is a great and tragic loss.

It’s — I’m very mindful of 17 April, 1983, when we lost our entire station, virtually, in Beirut to a Hezbollah bombing. I went through that painful process, because some of the people killed I knew very well.

So, we’re going to go through this again. I think the CIA director, Panetta, said it right. We’re a very strong organization filled with a lot of brave people who put their lives on the line every day. And they do it repeatedly every day. And that’s the kind of agency that I know. It is my beloved agency. And I know we will get through these difficult hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Charles Allen, Paul Pillar, and Tyler Drumheller, thank you, all three, very much.


PAUL PILLAR: Thank you.