In the days since the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing, many officials, including the White House’s counterterrorism director, John Brennan, have insisted that the Detroit incident was “not like 9/11.” In many respects, we agree. But the government’s handling of the intelligence leading up to the attack was eerily reminiscent of one of the most shocking — and relatively underreported — revelations to come out of the 9/11 commission’s hearings.
The commission, having been informed that before 9/11 the State Department maintained a list of known or suspected terrorists whose travel should be restricted, asked Federal Aviation Administration officials how many of that list’s 61,000 names were on the F.A.A.’s “no fly” registry. The answer supplied by senior aviation administration officials was astonishing in two respects. First, the commission was told, the no-fly list had not 61,000 names but only 12, and included none of the 9/11 hijackers, even though the F.B.I. was searching actively for two of them before the attack.
Then came the bombshell: the F.A.A. security officials were unaware — until the commission asked its question at a hearing — that the State Department maintained a terrorist watch list at all.
In the hearing, Tim Roemer, a commission member, was stunned, telling the F.A.A. officials: “There’s a difference of 60,988 names between what’s been accumulated at the State Department as dangerous people, shouldn’t be flying, and what you have with your 12 people. Now, I can’t understand why there are not more efforts in liaison activities to reach out to State Department and start to bring some of those names over and prevent those people from flying.”
Today, the no-fly list has grown to 4,000 people, but the name of the man accused of the Christmas bombing attempt, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was not on it. Critical information concerning Mr. Abdulmutallab’s growing estrangement from his family and his Islamic radicalization in Yemen, according to an understandably exasperated President Obama, “was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list.”
Others in the intelligence community, according to Mr. Brennan, were aware that Al Qaeda in Yemen was training a Nigerian, perhaps named Umar Farouk, to carry out an attack. “But there was nothing,” according to Mr. Brennan, “that brought it all together.” When Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father reported his dangerous behavior to the United States Embassy in Nigeria, moreover, no one checked whether the younger Abdulmutallab held a multiple-entry visa (he did), or whether he had been denied a visa anywhere else (he had).
As President Obama said yesterday, after meeting with his national security team at the White House, “This was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we already had.” What, more than eight years after 9/11, and more than four years after the issuance of the 9/11 commission’s findings, are we to make of this systemic failure? And what should be done about it?
First, we should dismiss the partisan bickering over the issue. Both parties have presided over security failures and successes; systemic failures cannot be ascribed to the stewardship of a political party. Any effort to take partisan advantage of this unfortunate event, moreover, can only mask the more serious underlying issues, which President Obama raised squarely in yesterday’s remarks: are lapses in information gathering and sharing like those that occurred here endemic, or fixable?
The task of isolating the data points that identify one dangerous individual among thousands is hard; there will be, under the best of conditions, an element of judgment involved, an ineradicable quantum of human frailty. Tragic mistakes will always be possible. And there will be little or no defense against a lunatic, unconnected with any group, who ignites kindling in his underpants.
The question that Congress should investigate, and the administration should ask itself, is whether the system we have in place has reduced the likelihood of human error to an acceptable, if not irreducible, margin.
Our national security system should aspire to the zero-tolerance effectiveness with which our military has prevented an accidental launching of nuclear weapons. The attempted Christmas bombing, thwarted by brave passengers and not by our intelligence community, illustrates how far we still have to go.
There are procedural fixes worth undertaking, of course, like mandating enhanced screening, or installing body scanning technology, or coordinating the software used by intelligence agencies, or instructing State Department personnel to query the visa status of any person reported to be suspicious. Reforming the no-fly list procedures, as President Obama has proposed, is certainly overdue. But in our view the problem runs deeper, and requires a searching look at the structure of government itself.
Despite the best efforts of the 9/11 commission and other intelligence reformers, budgetary authority over intelligence remains unaligned with substantive responsibility. Turf battles persist among intelligence agencies. Power is sought while responsibility is deflected. The drift toward inertia continues.
Government agencies are most likely to succeed when structure matches mission. With its many jurisdictional boundaries and its persistent bureaucratic fault lines, our current system, although greatly improved since 9/11, affords too many opportunities to let information slip, too many occasions for human frailty to assert itself.
The attempted Christmas bombing carries an eerie echo of the failures that led to 9/11 because those fundamental flaws persist. The challenge for President Obama and Congress is to resist superficial sound-bite solutions and undertake the harder task of reinventing our national security system. As the president stated, “The margin for error is slim, and the consequences of failure can be catastrophic.”
Thomas H. Kean and John Farmer Jr., respectively, the co-chairman and senior counsel of the 9/11 commission.