9/11 Redux: Intelligence Fails to I.D. Plot

Blame it on bureaucracy. Blame it on inter-agency culture wars. No matter, the ball dropping in the Flight 253 case is eerily similar to intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Flight 253 on the ground in Detroit.

This unfolding story is chilling. As reported in this today’s New York Times, the National Security Agency picked chatter from Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen outlining a terrorist attack involving a Nigerian man. But various intelligence agencies failed to put the pieces together and thwart Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s aerial act over the skies of Detroit.

Furthermore, agents at National Counterterrorism Center in Washington didn’t connect those National Security Agency dots, when Abdulmutallab’s prominent banker father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, made urgent appeals to U.S. State Department officials and the C.I.A. regarding his son’s radical intentions. According to the Times:

A family cousin quoted the father as warning officials from the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency in Nigeria: “Look at the texts he’s sending. He’s a security threat.”

The cousin said: “They promised to look into it. They didn’t take him seriously.”

The new details help fill in the portrait of an intelligence breakdown in the months before Mr. Abdulmutallab boarded a plane in Amsterdam with the intent of blowing it up before landing in Detroit.

In some ways, the portrait bears a striking resemblance to the failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, despite the billions of dollars spent over the last eight years to improve the intelligence flow and secret communications across the United States’ national security apparatus.

Unfortunately, these calamitous events have produced mostly political finger-pointing and posturing. And officials have rushed to save face by burdening innocent air travelers with a series of ridiculous security measures. It’s like closing the airport door after the bomber is out. The solution is simple: make the inter-agency intelligence system work. In fact, start by search any of the 550,000 on the broader watch list when they show up at an airport. Isn’t that better than overburdening tens of millions daily.

The Times’ Scott Shane did an analysis of these events as well, comparing the current events with those of Sept. 11:

The finger-pointing began in earnest on Wednesday over who in the alphabet soup of American security agencies knew what and when about the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up an airliner.

But the harshest spotlight fell on the very agency created to make sure intelligence dots were always connected: the National Counterterrorism Center. The crown jewel of intelligence reform after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the center was the hub whose mission was to unite every scrap of data on threats and suspects, to make sure an extremist like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber, would never penetrate the United States’ defenses.

“It’s totally frustrating,” said Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the national Sept. 11 commission. “It’s almost like the words being used to describe what went wrong are exactly the same.”

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2 thoughts on “9/11 Redux: Intelligence Fails to I.D. Plot

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