Jan 07 2010
Update: Dana Milbank from the Washington Post apparently sees things the way I do. - end update
Just finished listening to the Q&A session at the White House and reviewing the report, and we Americans clearly have more dots to connect ourselves. The White House report (as vague as it is)Â can be found here.
First and foremost, it was a humbled White House out there tonight. Glib Gibbs was gone. The arrogant know-it-all attitude was gone. They knew they were reporting to the American people – their bosses – about a total screw up. It was refreshing – kudos to the team for taking us serious and respecting us enough to realized how badly they let us down. But they are not out of the woodshed yet.
John Brennan took responsibility for the failure to connect the dots, and from what I heard in the presser he most definitely deserves the brunt of the blame. I still say his risky approach to national security (captured in an on-the-record interview) – Â specifically his plan to dial back our sensitivity to threats and requiring more probable cause before getting all worked up – is at the center of this mess.
Let’s review the items I heard (in the order I noted them):
- Brennan admitted to Â letting the head of NCTC go on vacation after the failed attack – even though it became clear soon afterwards there could be more terrorists on the way. While I have sympathy for a dad on his 7 year son’s birthday, this was not the time for such personal priorities. There are hundreds of thousands of US military forces away from their families in harms way, the least you’d expect is the head of NCTC to stay put while we are under the threat of attack. This is just another indication of Brennan’s disturbing mindset and quirky priorities (as is the idea of arresting and lawyering up the bomber and possibly missing more life saving intelligence).
- As one probing reporter noted, designating a lead on these high risk intelligence leads seems to be an obvious step. Brennan noted (as did the WH report) that they clearly did not designate a lead center for the threat coming out of Yemen (as detected by the NSA). In fact, it looks like this administration (which has opposed the FISA-NSA changes made by President Bush to pass information) did not react to most of the NSA leads (as we shall see below when Brennan discusses his shock at finding Yemen a hotbed of terror). Not designating a lead for a threat is a screw up that I doubt happened under Bush.
- Napolitano noted Customs and Border Agents in Detroit were able to detect Abdulmutallab on the TIDE list (500,000+ names) while in flight. As I noted this morning, why weren’t the flight crew at least notified of this situation? No one asked and the report does not explain. Even worse, somehow the CIA and NCTC dot-connectors working in parallel (per the report) could not do what the agents in detroit did – find Abdulmutallab’s name. Neither the CIA nor NCTC connected the Yemen al Qaeda threat by some Nigerian individual (with a similar name supposedly) to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? As I have said before, the computers have to make the connections – it is their sole purpose (as the Customs agents proved with TIDE).
- Apparently the Ft Hood massacre lit up radical cleric al-Aulaqi in Yemen as a serious threat and al Qaeda ally. Is it any coincidence the dots NSA picked up between Abdulmutallab and al-Aulaqi seem to be the key dots missed? If Ft Hood focused concern on al-Aulaqi, how is it we missed his connection to Abdulmutallab?
- The “Lone Recruit” is the big change I heard and read about in the report.. It tells me Â the national security team is just now realizing they cannot only focus on people with established ties to al Qaeda, but need to review those who are establishing ties. Brennan admitted the new recruit angle was missed and he was surprised by it. This makes sense if you consider, once again, this administration’s bias against the NSA-FISA fixes and their desire to change the threshold of probable cause. The NSA is excellent at picking up NEW potential terrorists by reviewing who is contacting the established targets of concern. Did the young Nigerian’s contact with al-Aulaqi fail to be investigated because of the ‘calibration’ Brennan wanted to apply to filter which NSA leads would get attention?
- Brennan also admitted to being ‘surprised’ by the strength of AQAP Yemen, but he was the one briefed by Saudi Arabia on the similar bomb attack on their national security official by AQAP in Yemen. Is there a pattern here where Â NSA intercepts centering in Yemen and AQAP where down played as risks? It was Brennan’sÂ job to prioritize our resources against threats, how could he be so surprised?
- Another surprise in the report released by the White House was that reaching out to AQ and radical Islamists is NOT sufficient for concern. Why? Hasan was reaching out and the terrorist task force investigating him was suspiciously shut down by this administration. Abdulmutallab was reaching out (as supposedly discovered on NSA intercepts) but missed. How do we identify the “Lone Recruit” if we don’t worry about those trying to contact the radicals?
- We know from the report the CIA and NCTC are meant to be redundant failsafes to each other, and yet both failed to make the connection using different systems. I can only surmise that certain dots were deemed off limits for both independent systems and processes to fail. In fact a key phrase in the report was “different pieces of the puzzle were never brought together‘. I will emphasize this again, any search of a terrorist database would connect these dots unless certain dots (e.g., those from the NSA) were removed from the computer searches.
I want to know what changed with the taking of the reigns by Team Obama? That is the core question here because those changes are probably the first steps that need to be undone – ASAP.
Secondly, we need to know specifically if there were changes on how the NSA leads could be treated in these dot connecting exercises. I still get the strong impression there were changes. Â My suspicion is bolstered by the claim collection and sharing of data was not a problem, but dot connecting was. I especially would like to know more about the comment about “what appears to be incomplete/faulty database searches“.
They came out humbled, but did they fix their problems? The mea culpas were refreshing, but were they complete?