Sunday, January 3, 2010

Airline security and underpants bombers

Returning back to the question of this event being a failure of DHS or the various intelligence agencies, Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent postulated that it's not a matter of intelligence, but of policy.

New information may surface. But based on this, is it really fair to point the finger at the intelligence community here? Abdulmutallab’s father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn’t know where his son was, but might be in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the NCTC, would someone have put two and two together — setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab’s visa or putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy’s dad says he’s dangerous; he’s Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough?

The answer to that question most certainly requires a policy decision, not an intelligence decision. The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on. Are we prepared for that?

Similarly, there’s a reasonable issue to investigate about intelligence-sharing processes even in the pre-specific-threat level. But remember: that just increases the firehose of data NCTC must process. Information is supposed to filter up to NCTC in strength and specificity from the component intelligence agencies so that NCTC isn’t overwhelmed. If we want to say that there should be a lower standard for sharing with NCTC, fine. But then either NCTC needs to be given more resources, or we risk missing the next Abdulmutallab because NCTC’s analysts will be drowning in nonspecific data and trying to rope it to flotillas of additional information. It’s reasonable to ask, however, what the CIA did post-Nov. 19 to investigate Abdulmutallab specifically. But it’s also important to remember that barely a month passed between his father’s warning and Flight 253.

It should be noted that there hasn't been any major policy shift in the arena of no-fly lists and intelligence sharing from the last Administration to the current. If the minority party can hop off of the ironic-hypocrisy wagon and work with majority party....perhaps we can make some overdue fundamental changes that both make the airlines security tighter and not subject innocent travelers to cavity searches.


  1. It is not so much that we need to change our policy of the no fly lists.
    It is that we need to change our foreign policy in the middle east.

  2. I agree completely....but until or unless the threat of airline terrorism diminishes substantially......a program that is effective and makes sense....should be implemented.

  3. agreed; It is the same b.s. all over again. This can of alphabet soup, is not talking to that alphabet soup. Too many egos involved, no one accountable. That is until one gets egg on their face.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.