President Obama has blamed the intelligence community for not sharing information that would have prevented the underwear bomber’s attempt to down a Northwest Airlines passenger plane this past Christmas. Speaking with FrumForum, many former CIA and FBI officials felt the President’s criticism was unwarranted and argued that the agencies followed the procedures in place. These officials pointed the finger at the intelligence community’s inefficient bureaucracies for hampering the response.
All those interviewed felt that the CIA followed appropriate procedures. Prior to the bombing, two meetings were conducted with the father of bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and a report was sent to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). As Fran Townsend, former Bush homeland security advisor, stated, “The good news is dots were connected and the information shared. The next stage is the actual ability to pull it all together.” A former operative felt that “even though everything was done the way it was supposed to be, we still get dinged instead of placing the blame on the DNI and NCTC.”
According to former FBI and CIA officials the DNI and NCTC are redundant, unnecessary bureaucracies. A retired CIA case officer summarized everyone’s feelings when he said that “these agencies add more and more people who know less and less. Anytime you add another level of bureaucracy you multiply the inefficiency.” The agencies were established by the 9/11 commission to create an atmosphere of sharing. However, these former officials told FrumForum that instead of creating them, the “firewall” implemented during the Clinton administration by Jamie Gorelick should have been dismantled. Former FBI agent Richard Marquise explained that her policy “built a wall to separate intelligence from evidence and even prevented FBI agents from sharing information with other FBI agents.” Retired FBI agent Bob Hamer also pointed out that there was no sharing of information “for fear of being fired or prosecuted.”
How can information be collected and shared without these agencies? All those interviewed felt that CTC should be re-established under the director of the CIA. As Hermann explained “we must ensure that people working intelligence really know what they are doing.” Representatives from the agencies should be sitting side by side to share and evaluate information together and overcome the different cultures between them. As one former operative commented, CTC, under CIA management, should be where “both intel and law enforcement folks work together and develop information on the bad guys.” Hermann who was a part of both worlds, intelligence and the FBI, concurs, stating “relationships in these agencies should have been developed over the last eight years. It is up to management to take the leadership role and make it happen.” It was explained to FrumForum by a retired official that the CIA should house and control the CTC because in the analysis and operation of intelligence the “CIA has the proper expertise to know what to look for.”
The ability to share information databases between agencies must be integrated. It was pointed out that database integration has been discussed for the last twenty years, but nothing has been accomplished. A former high ranking CIA official stated that “there is the need for sophisticated algorithms to sort out data. The way to break out of the mold is to be above the bar on technology through innovative collection techniques.” A former CIA analyst pointed out that “databases have to be created that will allow easy cross access concerning any threats. The information can be watered down so it can be dispersed among the different agencies.” Joe Rozek, Microsoft’s executive director for Homeland Security Intelligence, emphasized that search programs can be built based upon what operatives and analysts require. He felt that “it is necessary to involve private industry because they have the best architects. We already implemented for some states a collaboration system where information and thoughts can be shared and disseminated.”
Another suggestion is for the Obama administration to take a more aggressive tone in gaining actionable intelligence. All the CIA officials interviewed felt that the predator strikes should be one tool used against the terrorists. However, they noted that by capturing terrorists actionable intelligence can be gained through interrogation. A high ranking former CIA official explained that through capture and interrogation, “we can get the play books, and find out the plan. We find out what they are thinking, who we are looking for, and what they are planning.” Another official further explained that “if we kill someone we get no intelligence at all, but if they are captured and even if they do not talk, information is gathered through their computer and cell phone…Besides we have seen that in killing the leaders they just get others to replace them.”
In order to have a strong intelligence community, Congress needs to appropriate more money for the agencies to hire and train people that can specialize in different areas of expertise where they can work together. A current operative told FrumForum that we must realize that “our foe is just as smart, capable, and motivated as us which means that even more resources will have to be poured in. However, recruiting is a problem because the finger-pointing atmosphere in Washington has had an impact.”
Unfortunately, all point out that with any decision, there is the human factor of error. A former analyst frustratingly noted that “we work as hard as we can, but intelligence is like Russian roulette. “ It was pointed out that there is an abundance of data: out of approximately 10,000 cables a day, only about ten are actually important. All said that there must be a fallback system where more than one analyst looks at the same raw data. Summarizing everyone’s feelings, a former high ranking CIA official stated that “The biggest mistake from recent briefings was that people kept saying that we need to take steps to make sure that this never happens again. I think we can take steps to lessen the likelihood of it happening…but NEVER? Never say never.” According to Townsend, one way of reducing human failure is to rely on technology and to think of intelligence “as an art, not a science that requires flexibility and imagination.” In short, the intelligence community must be proactive, not reactive.