The president yesterday had some harsh words for US intelligence agencies. What he didn’t have was a clear articulation of what kind of intelligence failure was responsible for missing the Christmas Day bombing plot. To be fair, these are early days, and much is unknown. But these distinctions matter. A lot. Identifying root causes is the first step toward fixing what went wrong.
So far, we have two and a half candidates:
1. Human failure. This is the easiest and most comforting possibility, because it suggests all we have to do is toss out the bad apples and the intelligence system will work better next time. Outside the beltway, “holding individuals accountable” means firing people. Inside the beltway, it usually means “promoting” people to different jobs where they can do less harm.
2. Systemic failure. This is the term du jour, mostly because it sounds serious and hard-nosed. But “systemic failure” can mean two things: that lots of people screwed up in different places (in which case the answer is firing more people). Or that individuals did their jobs exactly as they were supposed to, but the intelligence system lacked the structures, procedures, incentives, and cultures to prevent disaster. This second one was certainly the case before 9/11. The tougher question is whether it’s the biggest problem now: Did preventing the Christmas Day bomber require more Standard Operating Procedures inside US intelligence agencies or more common sense?
(I have to say, when the President has to announce a new policy that suspected terrorists will now automatically have their visa status checked, I’m thinking we have a common sense problem on our hands. Somebody actually has to be told to do this as an official policy?)
2.5. Collection failure. I put this as a half because it could fall under the other two categories, but it’s been largely overlooked. Yesterday, in fact, Obama explicitly said that the Christmas Day plot was not a failure of collection. I wouldn’t bet on it. I sure would like to know whether those August NSA intercepts that mentioned “the Nigerian” and “Umar Farouk” in the context of attack planning triggered any additional collection effort. Was the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria notified? Did anybody task any additional collection–human, or technical–inside the Intelligence Community?