A recently released report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) revealed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is struggling to provide regional fusion centers with timely intelligence information due to limitations of its IT systems and dissemination process. DHS collaborated with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2003 to set up fusion centers in an effort to coordinate counter-terrorism information and data collected by government agencies and private companies. The centers were intended to create a more robust early warning system to prevent future terrorist attacks.
Recently, amid an increase in homegrown terrorist plots, DHS has been touting fusion centers as a tool for preventing domestic terrorism. But according to the report, DHS is
>falling behind on providing centers with Homeland Intelligence Reports (HIRs), which contain information the DHS hasn't yet fully evaluated. The HIRs are intended to share information with fusion centers on suspicious activities before they are fully vetted. As of March 2010, 144 HIRs were overdue, meaning that fusion centers often receive the information after it becomes moot.
Specifically, some centers' personnel reported they relied on e-mails for situational awareness and intelligence data rather than using databases the DHS has appropriated because of usability issues, according to the report. An inability to search seamlessly across myriad federal systems and department databases that contain intelligence information also is a stumbling block that limits response time. The report also issued a host of recommendations for improving access and systems, including strategies for encouraging system use, implementing a single login and search across multiple databases, and methods for improvement in data-sharing across systems.
Today, on CFR.org’s front page, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Steven Simon comments on early White House analyses of intel related to the Christmas Day bombing attempt. Simon indicates that Obama counterterror adviser John Brennan is “on firm ground” in his observation that the Flight 253 intel failures were not similar to failures that occurred in conjunction with the September 11 attacks.
On Christmas day, Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was the target of a failed bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab 23-year-old Nigerian. The transatlantic flight, traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit, was disrupted during its final descent as Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite expl0sives that were concealed within his underwear. Following this terror scare, President Obama is looking upon US intelligence services with greater scrutiny, describing the incident as the result of a “systemic failure.” In the following week, President Obama ordered an investigation of performance by US intelligence services leading up to the Christmas Day incident. Given the facts surrounding the bombing attempt, investigating potential intelligence failures is warranted.
The events preceding the attempted attack suggest that much could have been done to prevent the young man’s entry into an airplane. Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, had repeatedly spoke with officials at the US Embassy in Nigeria, indicating his concern that his son was involved in radical political activity after traveling to Yemen. As a result, Abdulmutallab’s name was added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a database operated by the US National Counterterrorism Center. After being added to this 550,000-name list, however, Abdulmutallab was not added to the more selective US No-Fly List. (Part of the review ordered by the President will examine the handling of this information by the various terror warning lists and agencies.) Tuesday after the failed bombing attempt, it was revealed that there was US intelligence regarding Yemeni al-Qaeda members discussing “a Nigerian” who was preparing for such an attack.
Some of the political reactions have been striking, including those of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been a frequent and outspoken critic of President Obama. Following Obama’s initial reaction to the Christmas day event, Cheney criticized the Adminstration response as “low-key.” The former Vice President also argued that this was yet another indication that the President “is trying to pretend we are not at war.” In turn, major news sources have pointed out that Cheney may have been responsible for the release of two former Guantanamo detainees who later trained and provided Abdulmutallab with exploses.
While these partisan political exchanges have been just as predictable as they were during the Bush years, other responses to the attempted attack have been more measured and analytical. On a December 29 edition of NPR’s All Things Considered, Gregory Johnsen, a Near East Studies expert and current Princeton Ph.D. candidate examined the relationships between Abdulmutallab’s Yemeni trainers, and their connection with al-Qaeda. On December 30, the New York Times published an article pointing out that terrorist organizations do not merely recruit from the poor and disenfranchised in the Muslim world; in fact, individuals like Abdulmutallab (not to mention Osama Bin Laden) are from wealthier families, and may have had access to decent educational opportunities. Abdulmutallab himself belonged to a prominent Nigerian family, and graduated from the University College of London with honors.
After setting aside partisan rhetorical distractions, facts about al-Qaeda’s geographic and recruitment trends demonstrate that the Administration’s quick response is crucial. Al-Qaeda is changing, yet similar problems of miscommunication still affect American intelligence services over 8 years after 9/11. A presidential administration brave enough to use this as an opportunity to tackle aggressive, nonpartisan intelligence reform will be crucial for our national security. And, as the Flight 253 bomber himself indicated, there may be more bombing attempts in the future – intelligence sharing should not wait for a successful attempt.