Commentary: Let's not become our own worst enemy

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2010 

RESTON, Va. — Everyone should take a deep breath and stop flapping about the "failure" to identify Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a likely terrorist. What went wrong — and what's gone right?

Yes, there were disparate pieces of information that — if they were put together correctly and on time — might have sounded an alarm about Abdulmutallab before he got on Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam. Were they, however, of sufficient magnitude to force agencies to focus on him? One of the many misconceptions swirling around this incident is the nature of intelligence analysis, and especially analysis about potential terrorists.

In isolation, the Abdulmutallab "dots" seem alarming. However, intelligence analysis is more than putting the pieces together in one puzzle. It's more like working on many puzzles — perhaps hundreds of puzzles — simultaneously, and then deciding which puzzle and which piece of that puzzle should take precedence.

According to press reports, there are some 550,000 names in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), one of the federal government's major information-sharing databases. A subset, the Terrorist Screening Database, contains 400,000 names. The no-fly list has 4,000 names, and another 14,000 names are on a mandatory secondary screening list.

Those are a lot of dots to watch on a regular basis. Names appear on the various lists based on the nature of the information about them. There have to be rules about nominating names for the various lists, or else the system would quickly be overwhelmed. The sheer volume underscores how difficult it is to watch them all at once, or to decide to focus on one case above all the others.

Many, especially in Congress, are particularly outraged because they thought they'd fixed all of this by passing the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act, which created the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to oversee all of U.S. intelligence without the burden of running any single agency. That, however, was based on the illusory conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, whose staff was so fixated on creating a DNI that it made recommendations wholly unsupported by its own findings.

Many of us who testified before the Senate staff as the bill was being considered warned that while the Senate was adding another layer of bureaucracy, it wasn't doing anything substantive to change how intelligence is or can be handled. Those birds have now come home to roost.

The DNI, despite the efforts of the three dedicated individuals who've served in the position, doesn't have either the bureaucratic clout or the sheer capability to oversee intelligence at a level of detail that would prevent errors such as Abdulmutallab from happening. Nor will the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) ever have enough analysts, computers or databases to ensure that every suspect "dot" is connected correctly or on time.

We should also take a deep breath and consider how well we've done against terrorism since 2001. Al Qaida is much less capable than it was. Individual terrorists are a threat, but one man with explosives in his underwear is a lesser operation than the four-plane, 19-man attack that al Qaida launched in 2001.

Moreover, many terrorist plots have been stopped before they got as far as Abdulmutallab or the shoe bomber Richard Reid did. Many terrorists have been killed in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. The operating environment for terrorists has become progressively more difficult — but not impossible.

We also should recognize that a campaign against terrorists is like any other campaign — it evolves.

As we respond to new threats and defuse them, terrorists look for other vulnerabilities, but it's fair to say that we've made their efforts more difficult.

This is important. We haven't spent much time studying past campaigns against terrorists as a means of gauging our own efforts, but even a cursory examination will show that many of these campaigns last for decades, but that terrorists eventually quit as they have less and less to show for their efforts. Recruiting dwindles until only a small, fanatical hardcore remains. We're nowhere near that point now, but we've made progress.

Finally, we must return, once again, to the question of expectations. How often do we expect intelligence to be right? We'd like intelligence to warn of every event and forestall every attack, but it cannot — and no amount of bureaucratic tinkering will appreciably increase the success rate.

We've learned a lot about information sharing and warning since 2001, and we've made some improvements, but we're at war with an implacable enemy. We'll enjoy successes and we'll suffer losses, but baying loudly about every loss and near miss, rather than examining what we can do better, won't improve either our capabilities or our odds of success.

All it will do is make a difficult task more difficult, and at that point, we become our own worst enemy.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mark M. Lowenthal is the president of the Intelligence & Security Academy. From 2002-2005, he was the Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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