Last fall, word emerged something was amiss inside Yemen. In response, President Barack Obama signed an order sending dozens of secret commandos to that country to target and kill the leaders of an Al Qaeda affiliate.
In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of US agencies.
That was the system as it was intended.
But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data reviewed each day.
Analysts had to switch from database to database, hard drive to hard drive, screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.
As operations in Yemen intensified and the chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, the intelligence agencies ramped up their effort. The flood of information into the NCTC became a torrent. Somewhere in that deluge was even more vital data. Partial names of someone in Yemen.
A reference to a Nigerian radical who had gone to Yemen. A report of a father in Nigeria worried about a son who had become interested in radical teachings and had disappeared inside Yemen.
These were all clues to what eventually happened: Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Yemen, boarded a plane for Detroit and tried to ignite explosives in his underwear when the plane was over the US.
But nobody put them together because, as officials testified later, the system was so big lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred. Umar was stopped, not by the enormous 9/11 security enterprise but by a passenger who tackled him.
The then Director National Intelligence Dennis Blair’s solution: Create yet another team to run down every important lead. He also asked Congress for more money and more analysts. The Department of Homeland Security asked for more air marshals, more body scanners and more analysts, too, even though it can’t find enough qualified people for its present intelligence unit.
The national security expansions continues undiminished.
In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.