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Treacherous times for America's spies

By Adam Brookes
BBC News, Washington

President Obama on 7 January 2010
The president said the buck stopped with him for recent intelligence failures

The man who is accused of trying to bomb an American airliner on Christmas Day made his first appearance in court on Friday.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's trial will be another important test case of America's ability to try terrorist suspects in civilian courts.

If the trials of Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui are anything to go by, it will proceed without a threat to US security.

But the Christmas Day bomb attempt is clearly asking pointed questions of America's ability to defend itself, and the contribution made to that defence by its spies.

Scattered info

US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded that plane at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam because of failures in America's intelligence system.

Courtroom sketch of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
A "not guilty" plea was entered on Mr Abdulmutallab's behalf in court

But his words strongly suggested he believes the intelligence system is not fatally flawed, rather it just needs strengthening.

"The US government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack. Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence we already had."

Indeed, information about Mr Abdulmutallab - his radical leanings, his presence in Yemen, his contacts with extremist clerics - was in numerous US intelligence system databases.

But those fragments of knowledge floated on a huge tide of intelligence that swirls through the system every day. They never came together to form a coherent picture.

Familiar ring

All this sounds rather familiar. Was it not this inability to "connect the dots" that led to 9/11? No, says John Brennan, the president's counter-terrorism adviser.

John Brennan
The intelligence fell through the cracks. This happened in more than one organisation
John Brennan
Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security

He told journalists that before 9/11, information was jealously guarded by different intelligence agencies, and never shared.

Today, information sharing is not the problem, he insisted.

In fact, so much information moves through the intelligence apparatus that analysts complain of feeling swamped and the bright little shards of knowledge that could prevent a plot from materialising can get lost.

"The intelligence fell through the cracks. This happened in more than one organisation," Mr Brennan said.

"This contributed to the larger failure to connect the fragments of intelligence that could have revealed the plot, Abdulmutallab's extremist views, AQAP's (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) involvement with the Nigerian, its desire to strike the US homeland."

Mr Brennan draws a fine distinction between two sorts of bureaucratic failure. And it is perhaps a distinction that many Americans will find hard to grasp.

It may also be difficult for President Obama to convince Americans that yet another series of tweaks to the intelligence bureaucracy are an adequate response to the latest attempt on US lives.

Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, writes that the bureaucratic approach is horribly flawed.

"You see, no-one is responsible for the mistake," he says. "It is processes that need changing, right?

"When you want to pretend to reform something, fiddle with the organisational chart, which relieves the people who should be held accountable, earns you their praise for being oh-so-wise, and gets you to the next screw-up."

Intelligence under attack

US intelligence has been bloodied in any number of ways in the last few weeks. Seven CIA officers lost their lives when an operation they were running in Afghanistan went horribly wrong and their own Jordanian agent blew them up.

Instruction sign inside a body scanner at Schiphol airport
Security has been stepped up at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam

And then, eerily, a report appeared written weeks earlier by frustrated military officers which argued that intelligence collection and analysis in Afghanistan is grossly inadequate.

Maj Gen Michael Flynn and Capt Matt Pottinger wrote that the US intelligence community "is only marginally relevant to strategy" in Afghanistan.

They wrote that "the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which US and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade".

The officers released the report not through their chain of command but through a private think tank, which lent it a curiously devastating impact.

So, in the course of a few months we have seen accounts of intelligence failures at the operational, analytical, and systemic level - all on garish public display.

For the Obama administration, all this is rather corrosive. It may be unreasonable, even unfair, to blame the president for the failure of Dutch security officers to stop an alleged would-be suicide bomber. But that is what will happen.

Political priority

Mr Obama is a Democrat, and Democrats seem perennially vulnerable to accusations of weakness on national security from their political opponents.

Consider this: weeks after Mr Obama announced 30,000 more troops would fight in Afghanistan, former Vice-President Dick Cheney accused him of "trying to pretend we are not at war".

The accusation, strange though it seems, continues to bounce around the internet echo chamber.

Towards the end of Mr Obama's speech on Thursday, he sought to recapture a sense of leadership and purpose in his national security policy.

"We will strengthen our defences but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans," he said.

Bombings and intelligence failures have rammed national security back to the heart of America's political debate as we enter this election year.

Treacherous times for America's spies and the leaders who are accountable for their actions and their failures.



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