Before 9/11, U.S. intelligence officials had little information about terrorism, and they hoarded it.
Now, they share it. All of it. Everywhere. Information about threats — actual, perceived and bogus — is spread across multiple agencies, stored in multiple databases. It arrives in untold snippets from all over the world and is hurriedly passed around. Nobody wants to be blamed for sitting on the missing puzzle piece.
In explaining its failure to stop alleged al-Qaida operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane while carrying a bomb, the government said Thursday that it had plenty of dots to connect. Information was passed around. No puzzle pieces went missing, but nobody put it together.
And there was nobody to blame.
“This incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies,” President Barack Obama said.
The 9/11 Commission in 2004 cited a complete failure of the nation’s intelligence community to share and analyze information. Former President George W. Bush spent years overhauling U.S. spycraft, forming new agencies, building new databases, encouraging information-sharing and training spies.
Years later, and following a terrorist attack that was prevented only because Abdulmutallab’s bomb failed to detonate, the nation is witnessing lingering problems that may even be getting worse.
“There’s so much intelligence flowing, and it all goes into this river of information,” said Patrick Rowan, who served as Bush’s top Justice Department counterterrorism official. “But the ability to fish out what’s important from that river is always going to be a challenge.”
U.S. officials had plenty of information to keep Abdulmutallab off the plane, and circulated it widely, according to the report. But the information arrived in incomplete bits, and it was stored in multiple databases. Had intelligence officials searched all those databases, they likely would have discovered enough to put Abdulmutallab on the “no-fly” list.
Intelligence is stored in multiple databases for different reasons. Sometimes because it’s maintained by different agencies in the 16-member intelligence community. Other times it’s to protect privacy or civil liberties.
Also, now that everyone has access to the information, it’s not always clear who’s in charge of analyzing it. That revelation left reporters scratching their heads as White House adviser John Brennan explained that now, someone should take the lead.
“It just seems like that would be the basic premise of any intelligence system,” one reporter said. “It seems so fundamental. I’m sure people wonder, ‘Really, that’s a reform we need?’”
“There are a lot of different organizations involved,” Brennan explained. “I think what we’re trying to do is to make sure that, as these threads develop — and there are so many of them — that it’s clearly understood who has the lead on it.”
The biggest problems revealed by the 9/11 Commission were dramatic and, in many ways, the solutions were obvious. The problems in Thursday’s report were murkier. How do you ensure the State Department spells a name correctly or that an analyst fishes the right tidbit of intelligence from the river?
“It’s a people problem and an accountability problem,” said Eleanor Hill, the former staff director of the 9/11 Commission.
Michael Jacobson, an investigator for the 9/11 Commission who now works on counterterrorism issues for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the problems described by Obama may be even more difficult to solve. The better our spycraft, the more information we’ll get. The more information, he said, the harder it is to make sense of it all.
That’s why Obama’s order to his intelligence community looks much different from the list of recommendations following 9/11. Obama didn’t tell the government to change what it is doing. He just wants them to do it better and faster.
And he left it up to them to figure out how.
Matt Apuzzo is a member of the Washington enterprise team for The Associated Press. Pamela Hess has covered national security since 1993.