What Kind of Intel Failure?

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?

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

7 thoughts on “What Kind of Intel Failure?”

  1. "but the intelligence system lacked the structures, procedures, incentives, and cultures to prevent disaster"

    And this disaster was? That some nut burned his crotch. Is that really our bar for disasters these days?

    It does NO-ONE any good to engage in this sort of wild-eyed ratcheting up of language. If you're clutching at straws rhetorically, at least refer to "potential disaster".

    (Ah, potentiality — what aren't you good for justifying? From tax cuts to torture to foreign invasions, you're the word that can vindicate them all.)

  2. Dr. Z, I disagree re. a possible collection failure, but the question of visa approval gets my attention. Supposedly the database in which his name resided has roughly half a million names, but by today's standards this is not a huge number and it should be available & easily searchable for those in the visa chain, so it's definitely a "structures, procedures" issue. Also, profiling at the airport security level might have helped — an Islamic male with a one-way ticket & no checked baggage didn't raise concerns? (Of course with this issue it's the Dutch who are on the hook.)

  3. Anyone who can point me to one successful "intelligence" operation will receive a cash bonus. I claim the right to judge if the Guatemala or Iranian revolutions of the 50s were correct. Also, I exclude the start of the Korean War and the start of the Vietnam War as successes (yes, grandson, there are two books published by the Naval Institute Press, not a left wing operation, that prove conclusively that american "intelligence" people started both wars.)

    Intelligence = highly paid welfare for failures.

  4. For another opinion on what went wrong, see Glenn Greenwald: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald… . He argues that allowing warrantless eavesdropping results in too much data. He says that making intelligence collection go through the FISA court makes them concentrate on quality leads rather than just collecting data to CYA.

  5. There's a type of systemic failure that's particularly pernicious because it masquerades as human failure.

    Give a bunch of people a job that it isn't humanly possible to do without occasional error. Provide hundreds or thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands or hundreds of millions of opportunities for error. Then define every error as a human failure, talk a lot about individual responsibility and fire someone. Problem solved!

  6. Maynard, the disaster wasn't a burned crotch. It was that an individual bent on destroying a commercial aircraft apparently managed to smuggle high explosives on board one.

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