Taming the Mouse

Obama promised to improve our intelligence system. But how good can it get?

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

In the cat-and-mouse game that is intelligence gathering, President Obama promised Thursday to make the cat stronger, faster, and smarter. But ultimately, he suggested, the only real solution is to tame the mouse.

In a 13-minute speech delivered in the White House State Dining Room, Obama declined to assign blame for the failure to stop the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. He instead called it a “systemic failure” and outlined a series measures to keep it from happening again: improve airport screening technology, assign responsibility for particular intelligence cases to particular officers, and lower the bar for who gets put on terrorist watch lists like the no-fly list.

Obama emphasized that the “underwear bomb” wasn’t another 9/11, intelligence-wise. The problemwasn’t that American intelligence officials didn’t have enough information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he boarded a plane in Amsterdam and tried to detonate a bomb in his pants in the air above Detroit. Nor was it their failure to share the information they had. Rather, it was “a failure to connect and understand” that intelligence. The agencies had enough dots—they just failed to connect them.

Three dots loomed especially large. The first was a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria in November by Abdulmutallab’s father, who warned that his son had become an Islamic extremist and was possibly hiding in Yemen. The second was a vague report of a possible attack from Yemen involving a Nigerian. And the third was a general warning that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to attack not just American interests in Yemen, but also America itself. (One of the more embarrassing dots is the State Department’s failure to realize Abdulmutallab had a valid U.S. visa—because of  a misspelling of his name.)

As for who failed to connect these dots, fingers had been pointing to Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. And with some reason: The NCTC is the organization charged with integrating and analyzing intelligence data collected by the 16 national intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. Adding to the fire was the New York Daily News report that Leiter had refused to come home from his ski vacation after news of the attempted bombing.

Obama did his best to snuff out the blame. Leiter was in contact with the administration and other agencies, Obama’s advisers said, and was given permission to take his annual leave only after consulting with the White House. Nor was the NCTC to blame. In a briefing after the president’s speech, counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan tried to jump on the grenade. “I let him down,” he said. But Obama had preempted him: “Ultimately, the buck stops with me,” Obama said. “When the system fails, it is my responsibility.”

At the same time, Obama deflected criticism that he isn’t taking national security seriously. 9/11 Commission chief Lee Hamilton expressed concern that the president is being complacent. Hence the multi-agency review, a presidential speech, a joint follow-up briefing by two top advisers, and a Facebook chat with Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough. Dick Cheney has slammed the president for not calling the struggle against terrorism a “war.” This time, Obama said it twice for good measure: “We are at war. We are at war against al-Qaida.”

What Obama didn’t say, but becomes clear in the White House review (PDF), is that connecting the dots is really, really hard. Out of millions of tiny pieces of information being collected by 16 different agencies, one agency wasn’t able to connect three or four seemingly random ones, flag them, and conclude that they warranted action. Easier said than done. As it turns out, several components of the system did work. (Although not to the extent that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at first suggested.) Abdulmutallab was on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, watch list. Border control was reportedly aware that he was heading for the United States and was planning to interrogate him when he landed in Detroit.

But the warning signs—the embassy visit from his father, plus reports of an attack involving a Nigerian—didn’t trip the alarms necessary to move him from the TIDE list to the more exclusive no-fly list. The alarm system simply wasn’t sensitive enough. As the Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman put it, this wasn’t an intelligence failure. It was a policy failure.

That’s going to change, Obama said. Data analysis will be deeper. Individual intelligence officers will oversee individual cases. The no-fly list has already been expanded. Agencies will be held accountable (well, starting now). But, Obama added, “there is, of course, no foolproof solution.” There’s no way to catch every terrorist who tries to enter the United States. There’s no way to “thoroughly and exhaustively” pursue every lead the CIA stumbles upon, as the president’s new directive calls for, no matter how many resources it has. There’s no magic bullet—or, in this case, magic airport scanner.

Which is why Obama has long insisted that counterterrorism means more than catching bad guys at airports. It means preventing them from becoming terrorists in the first place. “That’s why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al-Qaida offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death—including the murder of fellow Muslims—while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress,” Obama said. It’s the same message he delivered in his speech on America and the Muslim world. “If you asked him what are the most important things he’s done to fight terrorism in his first year,” Rahm Emanuel told the New York Times Magazine, “he would put Cairo in the top three.”

No doubt the eyerolls in the Cheney household were visible from space. But after an attack that showed that even a well-trained, well-informed, well-funded cat can make mistakes, the case for mouse-taming starts to sound rather convincing.