Analysis: Collecting and Sharing Information Is Not Enough

Intelligent information sharing has improved, but there’s a long way to go.

by Josh Filler / March 23, 2010
U.S. Army

[Photo: Post police take cover when a gunman fires shots at the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Nov. 5, 2009. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.]

The recent failure to act in the face of overwhelming intelligence in the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre that left 13 dead, coupled with the nearly catastrophic failure to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from the Netherlands to Detroit with a bomb on Christmas Day 2009, has raised serious questions about the nation’s current state of security. Do we collect, share and analyze intelligence more effectively since 9/11? The short answer is yes, but significant challenges remain.

Just as the two attacks highlight the U.S.’s intelligence failures, our success is evidenced by the numerous thwarted plots at home and around the world. The reason that so few Americans have been killed in a terrorist attack since 9/11 is because the homeland security community has been effective in thwarting those plots. If the ratio of success to failure were inverted, the death toll would likely be in the thousands. Fair or unfair, in the homeland security business, there’s zero tolerance for failure simply because the stakes are so high.

The breakdown in both the Fort Hood and Flight 253 cases appears to be less about sharing information and more about piecing together, understanding and acting upon the information we had. The approximate 18 e-mails between U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan and a known al-Qaida recruiter should have warranted an investigation by the FBI.

The U.S. government created a file on Abdulmutallab in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the intelligence community’s overarching repository of international terrorists, before he boarded Flight 253. This file was based on Abdulmutallab’s father warning the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s radical Islamic views. These warnings came after the United States issued Abdulmutallab a visa in June 2008, but the warning didn’t impact the visa’s status and wasn’t connected to other intelligence streams.

It’s not enough to collect information and share it. We must ensure that it’s properly analyzed and the right judgments are reached. As Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, pointed out with Abdulmutallab, “There was a failure to properly account for the credibility of the father as a source and the gravity of the warning he provided regardless of corroborating evidence.”

We also must have the means on the ground to act appropriately on the intelligence we  have. Intelligence is interrelated to the many other layers of security of which it is a part. Assume the intelligence on Abdulmutallab didn’t get him on the “no-fly” list, but landed him on the selectee list for secondary screening. Did the Dutch screeners have the right tools to detect the explosives he was carrying? Would a normal pat down work given the explosives were in his crotch or would trace detection or a bomb dog be necessary? Would they have been used in that case?

The federal structure remains murky and at times confusing despite the creation of the Director of National Intelligence Office and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), both of which were at the heart of the failure to prevent the Flight 253 bomber from getting on the aircraft bound for the United States. Both entities were overlaid on top of the existing intelligence community after 9/11 to prevent failures like Flight 253 from happening in the first place.

Patrick Hughes, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Department of Homeland Security’s Intelligence Office, believes that although information sharing among the intelligence community has improved, entities such as the NCTC “have a very hard time overcoming the strong traditional vertical organizational and accountability structures within intelligence agencies that de facto resist information sharing outside those vertical structures.” Although it’s still early in the life of the NCTC, whether it can create a culture of collaboration and live up to its mandate as the integration point for U.S. counterterrorism efforts remains to be seen.

Though problems clearly remain at the federal level, the intergovernmental relationships also have their share of challenges despite vast improvements over the years. Many in the federal government still view states and localities as appendages to be dealt with in the counterterrorism mission. This is a huge mistake. As Matt Bettenhausen, secretary of California’s Emergency Management Agency noted, “The federal government must enlist, entrust and empower state and local agencies as full partners in the national terrorism prevention mission.”

Anyone who believes domestic counterterrorism starts and ends with the FBI doesn’t understand America’s federal system. There is a wealth of talent and understanding of local communities embedded in these local and state agencies that can spot suspicious activity and engage the community on homeland security issues in ways federal agencies cannot.

Federal agencies also strain to understand that in cases like Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested on charges for planning to bomb New York City in 2009, state and local leaders need to know certain amounts of information even if their jurisdiction isn’t believed to be a direct target of the threat. If the nation as a whole isn’t implicated in such cases, why are national joint U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FBI intelligence bulletins released in tandem with the investigation? Going forward, before any press conference announcing a terrorism indictment or specific threat, the FBI and DHS should together inform and answer questions from state and local homeland security officials concerning the meaning of the indictment or threat for homeland security more broadly.

State and regional intelligence fusion centers have evolved significantly as a place to pool multiple sources of intelligence within a region, but the next level of integration, such as between the FBI’s Field Intelligence Groups, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, fusion center analysts and local law enforcement remains unmet. Nor has a construct outlining how fusion centers across the country should interoperate within a larger domestic intelligence framework been developed. While in states such as California, the FBI has given state and local fusion center analysts limited access to its e-Guardian counterterrorism database, the integration and partnership is still in its infancy.

2009 was a critical year in our nation’s security with a new administration in Washington, D.C., and a huge uptick in attempted and actual attacks inside the homeland. With that, it’s easy to get lost in all the homeland security challenges that remain and lose sight of the enormous improvements the nation has made in the last nine years. Because so many of these challenges result from the human factor, they’re unlikely to ever be fixed. Instead, they must be managed through strong and consistent leadership, a motivated and talented homeland security community and a commitment to the mission over turf.