CIA to Obama: Don’t Point the Finger at Us

January 13th, 2010 at 3:13 pm | 17 Comments |

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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.

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17 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    Did Obama blame them for not sharing information?

    “This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.”

  • rbottoms

    How can a guy getting on a plane after the CIA was warned by the man’s own father he was a danger not be the fault of the agency? What, the CIA called Obama at 3am and he said screw it, let the guy on board?

    Poppycock.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    “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.”

    This is confusing to me. Is the complaint that we’re killing too many terrorists and we should be capturing more of them instead of killing them? Or is the complaint that once captured, the interrogations are not aggressive enough? If it’s the latter, we probably should not expect any other Muslim fathers to voluntarily turn over their sons to us.

  • oldgal

    “All procedures were followed.” Often the easiest ways to screw things up is to follow the rules to the letter. These folks need to work together to figure out how to do things better rather than taking pot shots at each other. When things go wrong, the folks involved should each ask themselves and each other what things they could have done to get a different outcome.

  • balconesfault

    “All procedures were followed.” Often the easiest ways to screw things up is to follow the rules to the letter. These folks need to work together to figure out how to do things better rather than taking pot shots at each other.

    Which seems to be where Obama has been going with this – saying that there are systemic failures that need to be addressed, avoiding pointing the finger specifically at anyone, and making a point of not just finding a scapegoat.

    It’s not productive for these agents to go running to their sources saying “it’s not OUR fault”. In successful organizations, in times like this, everyone just comes to the table and says “what can we do better” … because even when you didn’t do anything wrong, there are always things you can do better.

  • rbottoms

    In successful organizations, in times like this, everyone just comes to the table and says “what can we do better”

    Or if you’re the GOP, how can we exploit this fear to win in 210, you know like we did in the good old days of 2002.

  • sinz54

    I heard that one factor was that Abdulmutallab’s name was misspelled in at least one of the databases. And the databases currently work on exact match of names, so the misspelled name in one database wasn’t correlated against his correctly spelled name in other databases. Hence those particular dots never got connected.

    I suspect that’s true, because there are so many tens of thousands of names to be processed, that it’s not like clerks sitting at desks can’t possibly go through them all. If the automated systems don’t spot red flags, the human operators won’t either.

    Instead of creating vast new bureaucracies like Homeland Security (which have arguably performed worse than their ancestors like FEMA), a better use of our tax money would be to completely modernize and integrate the databases used by FBI, CIA, DIA, State Dept., TSA, etc. Anyone logging on from any of those agencies should enjoy “one-stop shopping” of all the data the Government has available (with security protections against privacy violations).

    Google is already tolerant of misspellings. If you misspell a search term, Google responds with “Did you mean” followed by the correct spelling.

    Remember Dede Scozzafava? I’ll bet that whenever she has to give her name to a Government agency, she has to spell it about twenty times before they get it right–because those Government agencies’ computer data banks work off the exact spelling of her name.

  • rbottoms

    If the automated systems don’t spot red flags, the human operators won’t either.

    If Google can filter billions of records in seconds and make recommendations why can the TSA do the same. Hell, hire Google to build the damn thing.

  • anniemargret

    sinz: “….better use of our tax money would be to completely modernize and integrate the databases used by FBI, CIA, DIA, State Dept., TSA, etc. Anyone logging on from any of those agencies should enjoy “one-stop shopping” of all the data the Government has available (with security protections against privacy violations).”

    hear, hear! Great suggestion and one they should implement immediately. It is hard to believe it is 2010 and we still don’t have an integrated intelligence system that works. And even more difficult to believe that we are still all discussing it almost 9 years after the worst terrorist attack on US soil.

  • jreb

    Sounds like reasonable suggestions:
    (1)elimination of inefficient or redundant bureaucracies or bureaucrats
    (2)ability to share information databases between agencies
    (3)more aggressive tone in gaining actionable intelligence
    (4)appropriate more money for the agencies to hire and train people that can specialize in different areas of expertise where they can work together
    (5)fallback system where more than one analyst looks at the same raw data
    and
    (6)retain and recruit intelligence professionals

  • jreb

    From the Wall Street Journal opinion article entitled “What Our Spies Can Learn From Toyota” the authors suggest streamlining from 16 separate intelligence agencies to four primary agencies:
    (1)a foreign intelligence agency
    (2)a military intelligence agency
    (3)a domestic intelligence agency
    (4)a technical data intelligence agency (satellite mapping, electronic interception, etc.)

    The Director of National Intelligence would be a coordinator rather than combining the role of a coordinator with that of the president’s senior substantive intelligence officer.

  • balconesfault

    jreb – if Obama proposed that, could you imagine the screaming that would take place? I can already imagine the list of features here about how this is just a power grab and Obama is destroying our security so he can install his political cronies throughout these new agencies.

  • rbottoms

    It is hard to believe it is 2010 and we still don’t have an integrated intelligence system that works.

    Not when you consider who was in charge 1/2001 – 1/2009.

  • RalfW

    It hardly seems like breaking news that insiders at CIA are unhappy to have been called on the carpet and are willing to anonymously complain.

    That said, I’m confident that things can be done better going forward. I don’t personally get the sense that Obama wants to layer on more bureaucracy. The lean, mean suggestion of jreb is appealing, but I think balcones is right that in this current mode of using every possible angle as a means of attack on Obama that he’d be ripped appart (or, tehy’d try, anyway) if he proposed something that sweeping.

    It is one of the ways that hyper-partisanship is making actual, effective governing nigh impossible. What happened to fighting on domestic issues, but that stops at the water’s edge? (I have my ideas of what happened, and that answer tends to involve a sort of Beck-Rove-Gingrich sort of tactical precedence over really putting America first).

  • Newbigtech

    It comes down to NAPOLITANO, having a year to change any defaults in Security and not taking action. Showing she is inept, not qualified to keep America safe.

    How many TERRORIST suicide bombers from Nigeria, somolia, or Saudi Arabia are there here in the UNITED STATES?
    Our southern Borders are still WIDE OPEN!

  • Reality Chick

    These conclusions are logical; centralize intelligence, get rid of the barriers, have both machines and humans coordinate intelligence info etc. etc. Not much one can disagree with given the world today; but, just like the hundereds of layers of bureaucratic inefficiency that plague this country this is another one that may never be improved. In this case, it’s a matter of life and death. Maybe that will motivate changes to be implemented faster than usual.

  • balconesfault

    Newbigtech: It comes down to NAPOLITANO, having a year to change any defaults in Security and not taking action. Showing she is inept, not qualified to keep America safe.

    By extension, shall we presume that all the Bush Homeland Security Chiefs were inept and not qualified to keep America safe, since they left in place the defaults that Napolitano didn’t change?

    Are you the same person who was arguing the other day that the US should immediately impeach any President who has a successful domestic terrorist attack occur on his/her watch?