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Welcome to my Blog! Thanks for stopping by. I'll be posting from time to time my adventures in writing and my trials and tribulations in the publishing world, along with anything relevant in regards to current events, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Intelligence community that appears in the press. Please note that anything I post is not reflective or representative of any official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force; only my views and opinions as a private citizen.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Some Reasons the Attempted Bombing of Northwest Flight 253 Succeeded

Here are a few facts culled from recent news reports from the New York Times and Fox News websites about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to destroy Northwest Flight 253.

- In August 2009, NSA intercepted conversations among Yemeni based Al Qaeda leaders discussing a plot to use a Nigerian man, who we now know was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for an upcoming terrorist attack – the intercepts were translated and the resultant intelligence disseminated within the U.S. Government and its Counter Terrorism community (comprised of specific elements of the various intelligence agencies).

- Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, visited the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria in November and expressed concerns about his son’s increasing radicalization to State Department officials and a CIA representative or representatives. Mr. Mutallab apparently went so far as to show the U.S. embassy and CIA personnel his son’s text messages.

- Shortly after the meeting in Abuja, embassy officials sent a “Visas Viper” cable to the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) on 20 November 2009.
- Also In November, the CIA compiled some biographical data on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but waited to disseminate that data until photographs of Umar could be obtained.

So why did Abdulmutallab nearly succeed?

He succeeded do to a nasty combination of poor IT infrastructure within the intelligence community, inattentive and negligent intelligence analysis, a visa revocation process that is not appropriate to a nation in a war with violent extremists, and the end of the calendar year.

Part of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s challenge in the 21st Century, particularly in the global information age, is to establish and integrate the various agencies stove-piped information systems. While the agencies have made great strides in modernizing their individual internal infrastructures, they have been less successful in designing and building information systems that can cross-connect and share information efficiently, in a common understandable format. Progress is being made in this area, but it will be many years before it can happen. One of the major problems is the institutional mindset that will not, for example, permit CIA to use the same integrated IT system that NSA uses. Neither agency wants the other able to potentially see everything the other agency is doing, in spite of the fact that it is technologically possible now to have both agencies share a common system, but keep vital sources and methods data separate from the usable intelligence. If this antiquated mindset could be set aside by political mandate, it would likely take five years before the USIC had one integrated system that would provide all analysts with all available intelligence information. Had this common analytic knowledge system been available, Abdulmutallab would likely have been identified as a serious threat much sooner.

Naturally, identifying Abdulmutallab as a threat would have required an analyst or analysts to correlate the data from the CIA, NSA, and State Department reporting and then flag him on the no-fly list. If nothing else, when his father reported him to the State Department and CIA officials in Nigeria, the embassy personnel should have had the common sense to check to see if he was a holder of a current visa and the immediate authority to suspend it, pending further inquires. The U.S. is not obligated to allow non-U.S. citizens into this country. The temporary suspension of a travel visa should not require a committee decision in the D.C. area, nor should we operate under a “come one, come all” mind set, when common sense would dictate otherwise. Further, the CIA analyst who created the biographical information on Abdulmutallab should not have waited until he had photographs to share it. CIA, being a “people focused” business, undoubtedly breeds an analyst that is focused as much on a physical description as the relevant intelligence a human asset can provide. These analysts must better learn how to live in the information age, where a data file can be constantly updated as new information presents itself, and not waited to share. As is demonstrated in this case, even an incomplete picture of the facts could have been helpful.

The analysts in the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), who without doubt are working long hours and receiving very little public fanfare for all the attacks they have helped the military and U.S. law enforcement stop, also need to work on their procedures. Certainly no one can expect an analyst to work with no facts at all in hand, but the NSA reporting that a “Nigerian” was going to be used by Al Qaeda to conduct an attack, should have triggered an immediate scrub of all terror watch lists for Nigerian nationals, and subsequent alerts to the TSA and our foreign partners to give additional security screening to all Nigerians destined for the U.S. We don’t know everything that the people in NCTC did and didn’t do in response to the admittedly minimal data that current news reporting indicates was available, but I suspect NCTC’s internal procedures and analytic methodology will be getting a thorough review.

Lastly, the end of the calendar year didn’t help us much. As someone who spent long years in government service, I can tell you for a fact that many of the most experienced, and capable people in the civil service begin to burn through their accumulated leave at the end of the year. Much of this happens during Thanksgiving week, and in the week prior to Christmas through the New Year. Does that mean that the watch standers at the various agencies and centers are poorly trained, inexperienced dullards? No. But it does mean that there are less of our best paying attention, because they are looking after their families during the holiday season. Is it an excuse or even a major contributing factor, probably not. Did it contribute to Abdulmutallab’s ability to successfully board a plane and nearly destroy it on Christmas Eve but for luck and the courage of the passengers and cabin crew? It did to some degree.

The poor visa denial procedures, the less than ideal IT systems, and the potential analytic failures, and our own holiday schedule enabled Abdulmutallab’s attempted act of terrorism and mass murder on Al Qaeda’s behalf, proving again the truth of the statement, “We have to be perfect every time. They only have to get lucky once.”

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