The failure of US authorities to detect a plot to bomb a US airliner on Christmas Day has reignited long-simmering concerns that intelligence reforms implemented five years ago remain inadequate to prevent terrorist attacks.
With disaster aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 averted by the bomb’s malfunction, rather than by astute analysis of available information, some intelligence officials have suggested that the reforms were the cause of such lapses and not the solution to them.
President Barack Obama has not singled out anyone for blame, and said that everyone involved has “taken responsibility” for their own shortfalls.
But the most intense scrutiny has been directed toward the centerpiece of the 2004 intelligence reorganisation: the National Counterterrorism Center.
The NCTC and its parent, the director of national intelligence (DNI), were created to force the 16-agency intelligence community to share information in ways that eluded it leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
As the central repository for “all-source” intelligence on international terrorism, the NCTC is tasked with connecting the dots and advising the government on threats.
If dots were not connected concerning the airline bombing allegedly attempted by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on behalf of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Obama “knows where to look” for the culprit, said one intelligence official who, like many others across the intelligence community, is worried about where the blame will fall and appeared anxious to direct it elsewhere, but would address the subject only on the condition of anonymity.
Other intelligence officials defended the NCTC, countering that some agencies appear less interested in fixing the problems than in concealing their own failure to interpret and flag information they had that might have prevented the holiday incident.
“Anyone who believes that a relatively small organisation like NCTC is going to connect every electron in each of those 30 databases is either disingenuous or naive, and certainly knows very little about how intelligence analysis actually works,” said a second official who was similarly reluctant to speak for attribution.
Regardless of where fault is ultimately assessed, several officials and experts said the failure to uncover the plot confirmed fears that the massive amounts of terrorism-related information being gathered since the 2001 attacks might outgrow the capacity to manage it.
The CIA, the FBI, the military and numerous Cabinet departments and independent agencies are flooded every day with new data from the field that it is available to the NCTC.
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