Jan 05 2010
I look forward to the congressional review of what in the world went wrong with our security sensor network in light of the near fatal Christmas Day bombing on Flight 253. Today, the ‘dots’ keep coming, which means someone had to have adjusted the sensitivity of the system to react in order to miss so many damn hints of a serious attack on this country and its people.
First we learn from the UK that al Qaeda trained and equipped bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was not only on the radar screen of MI5, but that UK authorities did pass on their concerns about him to the US:
The prime minister’s spokesman indicated that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was named in a file of people based in Britain who had made contact with radical Muslim preachers. The file was said to have been sent to the US authorities in 2008.
This was during that last days of President Bush’s term, but it means the name Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab along with his nationality as Nigerian was on the list of people to watch. Which makes this CNN report about NSA intercepts in August about a Nigerian working with al Qaeda in Yemen regarding a pending attack all the more damning:
The U.S. also had intelligence that between August and October of this year, extremists in Yemen were talking about operations. Someone known as â€œthe Nigerianâ€ was mentioned, and they had a partial name â€” Umar Farouk.
Seems inconceivable that the NSA intercepts were not linked back to the Bush era reporting from the UK.
Also today we get this news from the State Department regarding the events after Abdulmutallab’s father contacts the US Embassy in Nigeria:
The State Department’s official cable about underwear-bomberÂ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab wasn’t the only report to come out of the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria as part of the Visas Viper process, a State Department official tellsÂ The Cable.
But the additional qualitative information was included in several reports sent that same day and in succeeding days by the embassy in separate and previously unreported classified communications to the NCTC, from other embassy personnel not from [sic] employed by the State Department, the official said.
“The unclassified Visas Viper cable is just the tip of the iceberg in a much more extensive set of reports that came from the post,” the official said.
All paths lead back to the NCTC and the White House – as I have claimed here. I need to go back to a huge 9 page CYA article in the NY Times yesterday which is clearly part of a coordinated attempt to shore up John Brennan and the White House to illustrate the mind set in the Obama administration regarding the Bush era’s (successful) approach to terrorism:
So Obama informally banished the rhetoric of the last administration. â€œWar on terrorâ€ was out; so were â€œIslamofascismâ€ and â€œevildoers.â€
Brennan, unhappy, left government in 2005 and went on to write a proposed op-ed essay that he titled, â€œMr. President, Youâ€™re Wrong on Iraq.â€ In keeping with C.I.A. rules, he submitted it for classification review by the agency before distributing it to any newspapers for publication. A copy found its way to the White House, where it angered top officials. Brennan ultimately thought better of the article and withdrew it from C.I.A. review, but it was too late to salvage his standing at the White House.
Most of those people, of course, were in the moderate camp inside the Bush administration, not the Cheney cadre, or like Brennan they present themselves as simply career professionals who followed orders or who even quietly dissented from the most extreme policies of the last eight years. â€œI was somebody who did oppose waterboarding,â€ Brennan told me. â€œI opposed different aspects of the enhanced interrogation program.
By the time Obama was inaugurated, waterboarding had been halted for years, Bush had ordered that the secret C.I.A. black site prisons be emptied and the warrantless surveillance program and the military commission system had been restructured and approved by Congress. Bush had even declared that he wanted to close the GuantÃ¡namo prison, and although he never managed to do so, his team released or transferred about 500 detainees as a first step.
What this tells me is there were people who wanted to prove they were smarter than the Bush team, yet President Bush took away all their opportunities to undo his more controversial actions. This means all that whining on the left about the US approach to the war on terrorism was too late – of course the liberal press pretended nothing had changed.
So what was left for Brennan and others to do to show they knew better? Attack our defenders, make them overly cautious:
Tom Ridge, the former homeland security secretary, told me before the Christmas Day plot that under Obama, Washington had â€œlost a certain sense of urgency and commitment to combating terrorism.â€ Most disturbing to the Bush camp, even to those who generally see continuity in Obamaâ€™s policies, have been Attorney General Eric Holderâ€™s decisions to release legal memos that described interrogation techniques used by the C.I.A., to reinvestigate allegations of interrogation abuse by C.I.A. officers and to take Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, to New York to face trial in civilian court. Hayden recalled warning Jim Jones, Obamaâ€™s national security adviser, last spring not to alienate the C.I.A. by dredging up the past. â€œYouâ€™re about to spend the next 46 months without a clandestine service,â€ Hayden recalled saying. â€œIf these guys donâ€™t think you have their back, theyâ€™re not going to be very adventurous.â€
But that was Holder (and probably explains why the investigations into Nidal Hasan were suspended and led to the Ft Hood Massacre). Things were changing at NCTC and the IC as well:
For Brennan, these issues were a chance to get right what he thought went wrong under Bush. But he has found himself at odds with other advisers at times. When Craig and Holder wanted to release the memos about C.I.A. interrogation methods, Brennan initially agreed, reasoning that the tactics in the memos had by then been banned anyway. But he later reversed himself and sided with the C.I.A., which argued that the memos would give terrorists too much information about how American interrogators work.
At the house that John Brennan built, about 600 government employees keep tabs on what the extremists are up to, at least as much as they can. The National Counterterrorism Center, which Brennan set up on a leafy campus overlooking the Capital Beltway in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, is the center of the nationâ€™s efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda and its cousins. Obama came to visit last fall, and Brennan accompanied him.
But the clichÃ© is right â€” the government has to be right 100 percent of the time, while the other side needs to succeed only once. And the system failed to pull together what its component parts knew about Abdulmutallab before he boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam last month.
â€œA lot of the knuckleheads Iâ€™ve been listening to out there on the network shows donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re talking about,â€ he told me after the Christmas Day attempt. Some Republicans, including Cheney, were blatantly mischaracterizing the record, he fumed. â€œWhen they say the administrationâ€™s not at war with Al Qaeda, that is just complete hogwash.â€ It was the angriest I had heard him during months of conversations. â€œWhat theyâ€™re doing is just playing into Al Qaedaâ€™s strategic effort, which is to get us to battle among ourselves instead of focusing on them,â€ he said.
It is moments like these when Brennanâ€™s disaffection from the last administration becomes evident. â€œI much prefer talking with someone who is interested in understanding the situation and responding to it appropriately,â€ Brennan told me.
But it was the liberals who waged the war on President Bush, and who came into town determined to make changes. If, as Brennan stated in campaign era interview, the sensitivity of our security network was dialed down from high (check everything, no matter what) to the middle (apply a plausibility filter) then we can see how all these attacks have suddenly become more successful. Here is what Brennan said he wanted done while working on Obama’s campaign:
To me, I think the government does have the right and the obligation to ensure the security and safety of its citizens. If there is probable cause, reasonable suspicion, about the involvement of a U.S. person in something, the government needs to have the ability to understand what the nature of that involvement is. The threshold for that type of government access can be high or can be low, and it [the probable cause threshold] needs to be somewhere in the middle.
[Post 9-11] Every effort was made by the government to try to get as much understanding and visibility into what else might be out there thatâ€™s going to hurt us again. Now that a number of years have passed, we need to make sure the calibration is important.
It seems clear to me John Brennan planned to dial down our sensitivity to threats, to put our concern level ‘in the middle’. Is it any surprise dots failed to pass the new threshold of a ‘smoking gun’? Once there is smoke it is too late.