The National Counterterrorism Center May Have Dropped The Ball

The New York Times, in reporting on the security failures responsible for failing to detect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his failed bomb attempt, focuses on the National Counterterrorism Center -- and discloses there was electronic surveillance:

That's the agency that supposed to act as a fusion center, connecting dots in information received from various agencies, so that the failures in intelligence gathering associated with 911 don't happen again.

The remedy, proposed by the Sept. 11 commission and passed by Congress in 2004, was to place a single director of intelligence over the nation’s 16 spy agencies. At the core would be the National Counterterrorism Center.

...Intelligence analysts from one agency now routinely serve for a time in another agency, to develop personal ties. Databases of suspected terrorists are far more complete and accessible. The ban on hoarding data is strictly enforced.

So what's the problem? Maybe we're wiretapping so much and accumulating so much information, much of which is useless, it's not possible to accommodate it all and isolate the information that matters. [More...]

...the flood of intelligence collected against a scattered and shadowy terrorist network continues to grow, threatening to overwhelm the system,

....The eavesdropping agency, tracking e-mail and cellphone traffic around the world, each day collects four times the volume of information stored in the Library of Congress...'To pluck out the important threats is an almost impossible task.'

On the eavesdropping, the article says:

In the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab, the N.S.A. appears to have captured critical intercepts...

...[T]wo critical pieces of information appear never to have been connected: National Security Agency intercepts of Qaeda operatives in Yemen talking about using a Nigerian man for an attack, and a warning from Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father to American diplomats in Nigeria about the son’s radicalization in Yemen.

So we've been wiretapping and/or seizing e-mails of Yemeni al Qaida members and we still missed the plot?

Then, of course, there's the 9/11 commission chief who sounds like he hasn't even read the reports. He says:

“Think of what it took for the father, one of the most respected bankers in Nigeria, to walk into the American Embassy and turn in his own son,” Mr. Kean said. “The father’s a hero. His visit by itself should have been enough to set off all kinds of alarms.”

The father was not trying to turn in his son. He didn't say he thought his son might be on a suicide bombing mission involving airplanes. He was looking for someone to help him find his son, and he said he thought his son had fallen in with religious extremists.

And maybe if they didn't have this glut of information, the unrelated report from intercepts of al Qaeda operatives in Yemen talking about using a Nigerian man for an attack would have been easier to connect to the father's report.

The intercepts, according to Reuters, were at least four months ago.

The intelligence trail began at least four months ago, when the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted communications between al Qaeda leaders in Yemen discussing the possibility of using a "Nigerian" bomber, according to one official briefed on the intelligence.

The father came in one month ago. How much useless information did the computers and people monitoring them have to sift through in that three month period?

This companion article in the Times has more on the electronic intercepts and reports:

Based on the father’s account, C.I.A. officials in Nigeria also prepared a separate report compiling biographical information about Mr. Abdulmutallab, including his educational background and the fact that he was considering pursuing academic studies in Islamic law in Yemen.

That cable was sent to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., but not disseminated to other intelligence agencies, government officials said on Wednesday.

So the CIA didn't share.

What to expect now: Lots of leaks and back-stabbing from the CIA that discredit the NCTCand its Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. Why? Because Obama said heads will roll and the CIA is going to try to pass the blame -- and the NCTC is new and small and the CIA knows more about using dirty tricks.

The CIA may have a tough time though, considering it now has to account for its security failure in yesterday's Afghan attack that killed 8 CIA officers. The CIA failure sounds like a far more serious security breach:

The facility that was targeted -- Forward Operating Base Chapman -- is in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, which borders North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area that is believed to be al-Qaeda's home base.

...It is unclear exactly how the assailant managed to gain access to the heavily guarded U.S.-run post, which serves as an operations and surveillance center for the CIA. The bomber struck in what one U.S. official described as the base's fitness center.

For a suicide bomber to gain access to to a CIA operations and surveillance center is pretty incredible. Sounds like one of them had an informant that went south on them or one (or more) of their Afghan counterparts went rogue and helped the terrorists. Either way, that's a huge failure.

< Somali and Nigerian Explosives Not the Same | Thursday Morning Open Thread >
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  • Display: Sort:
    WSWS: Negligence or conspiracy (none / 0) (#1)
    by Andreas on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 04:18:24 AM EST
    There can be no serious investigation into how the Northwest Airline bombing plot was allowed to go so far without considering whether there are elements within the US state that had an interest in seeing it happen, and therefore in suppressing the intelligence and bypassing procedures that would have stopped it.

    Getting to the bottom of these questions is impossible without identifying the specific individuals who saw the information on Abdulmutallab and made the critical decisions which blocked careful surveillance and action.

    In its editorial Wednesday entitled "The System Failed," the New York Times cites the voluminous intelligence on Abdulmutallab and writes, "Officials say the warning was insufficient." It further states, "Officials decided that the warning wasn't enough to put him on the list of 14,000 people subjected to more thorough airport searches."

    The Times attributes these decisions to "bad judgment calls." As always, this voice of the erstwhile US liberal establishment can be counted on to provide the most trivial and unserious explanation for what is a deadly serious matter.

    Who are these "officials?" They should be named. Moreover, they should be subpoenaed, publically questioned under oath, and compelled to explain their decisions.

    Asking the question, who would benefit politically from a major terrorist attack on US soil, holds the best promise of shedding light on what is unbelievably presented as a staggering and inexplicable "breakdown" of Washington's intelligence and security systems.

    The Northwest Flight 253 intelligence failure: Negligence or conspiracy?
    Bill Van Auken, 31 December 2009

    Conspiracies aren't needed... (none / 0) (#4)
    by Romberry on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:22:15 AM EST
    ...where simple incompetence will do. Besides, as Bruce Schneier says, "Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers."

    We will never have a system where we can catch every bad actor before they act, especially those who are willing to die in the attempt. And when I think about the kind of society in which we would need to live in order to catch even most all bad actors before they acted, that is a society that would be anything but free and one in which I am not the least bit sure I would like to live.

    Passengers on airliners are no longer passive actors in these matters. The events of 9/11 changed the previous playbook pretty much forever.

    There are a few things here that really do bother me. Chief among them is the question of why Abdulmutallab returned to his seat before attempting to set off his device. He could have well sequestered himself out of sight and prevented any interference (at least for a short while) if he had simply locked himself in the bathroom. And if the device was large enough to blow a hole in the side of the aircraft, would blowing that hole somewhere other than the middle of the passenger compartment have rendered it any less effective?


    Yes (none / 0) (#8)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:05:55 AM EST
    He was sitting directly over one of the fuel tanks.

    Big, big difference between blowing a hole in the side in the restroom in the back and blowing up the fuel tank in the center of the plane.


    Did he know he was over a fuel tank... (none / 0) (#13)
    by Romberry on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 12:01:32 PM EST
    ...and did it really matter? Don't think it has been established that he was carrying enough explosives to get to the fuel tank, or if it has, I haven't seen it. Regardless, a large rupture in the fuselage at altitude is a bad, bad thing. Relatively explosive decompression is gonna be a problem regardless, and a device large enough to rip a sizable hole seems as if it could easily lead to a cascading failure of the airframe. (Sure am glad that the bomb makers were relatively incompetent and we don't know for sure what the outcome would have been.)

    It's thought that he knew (none / 0) (#16)
    by Cream City on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 05:00:39 PM EST
    that he was over the fuel tank, as I saw an interview with someone who said that he had asked for the seat.  I haven't seen much attention to the fuel-tank aspect since that interview, though -- all part, apparently, of trying to minimize this incident and get Americans flying happily again.  Ha.

    Why? (none / 0) (#2)
    by Doc Rock on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 06:36:21 AM EST
    The comment about NSA doing warrantless intercepts? Nigeria, the perp, and Al Qaeda are all foreign and were outside the US?

    Simple mistake? (none / 0) (#3)
    by Romberry on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:12:47 AM EST
    My take would be that was a simple mistake. Ms. Merritt is no doubt aware that warrants are not needed for communications intercepts that are entirely outside of the US and its territories. Looking at the (original) time stamp of her post and knowing that she is in Colorado, it looks like a "middle of the night thinking" kind of thing to me.

    yes it was a (none / 0) (#14)
    by Jeralyn on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 01:31:18 PM EST
    mistake and I've deleted that sentence. Thanks to both of you for pointing it out.

    The next person I meet... (none / 0) (#15)
    by Romberry on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 02:08:17 PM EST
    ...that never makes mistakes will be the first. (We can't all be Obama, right?)

    Different take (none / 0) (#5)
    by cawaltz on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:44:31 AM EST
    The area she is discussing is a hub. It is possible this hub is expected to screen both stuff learned domestically and abroad. If that is the case then sifting through an excess of data that the NSA accumulates would be relevant. I would imagine that if we got intel on a Nigerian man that we wouldn't just limit our review of chatter to simply Nigeria, we would potentially be looking at Nigerian nationals residing here.

    The underlying point of her post appears to be that there is so much data that it is hard to pick out and prioritize serious threats.


    Nevermind (none / 0) (#6)
    by cawaltz on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:47:18 AM EST
    I see what you're saying. The wiretapping abroad bit where she asks if it is warrantless.

    no matter how good they get (none / 0) (#7)
    by pluege on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:58:51 AM EST
    something, sometime is going to slip through. The system will learn something from this latest leak (probably the wrong thing), patch yesterday's holes, and not be anymore capable of catching the next incident as it was for this one. This is a fact of life. And relatedly, wingnuts are going to reject the facts of life and be unhelpful by grasping at straws to make hay out of every incident they can, because that is what today's republicans do - they're not helpful, they don't solve problems, and they have no intention of doing so.

    And the Democrats didn't do the same? (1.00 / 1) (#10)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:39:03 AM EST
    Surely you jest (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by pluege on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:56:29 AM EST
    democrats were so kowed they fell all over themselves trying to prove their patriotism by praising bush at every criminal endeavor and falling all over themselves to codify bush's criminalization of the executive branch. Its why we have a patently illegal Patriot's Act, Military Commissions,  indefinite detentions, black sites, and abuses of states secrets. Did you miss the demise of the rule of law under bush, fully facilitated by democrats, including after winning control of the House in 2006? Were you not here, or just sleeping for 7 years?

    Sez the CIA (none / 0) (#9)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:16:23 AM EST
    It's not immediately obvious why a Nigerian banker would turn specifically to the U.S. simply to help find his son in Yemen, but it's kind of a distinction without a difference, IMHO, because he clearly made a case for the urgency of the U.S. finding him because of his worries about the son's growing extremism and what he might do.

    This "help finding his son" stuff strikes me as CIA trying to throw a little cloud of dust around its culpability in bungling the whole situation.

    Unanswered question-- did the U.S., in fact, make any attempt to locate him in Yemen?