Terror plot a “cascade of failures”

Washington Capitol, DC

Image by Diez Photography via Flickr

A New York Times editorial today reviews what happened in the terror incident two weeks ago on Northwest Airlines Flight 253:

The report implicitly acknowledges all of this, saying that the system failed “to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government” about both the Al Qaeda group and Mr. Abdulmutallab. It also makes clear that this was not a single failure by one agency but was a cascade of failures across agencies and departments and the bureaucracies that are supposed to coordinate them.

It says that once the government learned of a possible plot in Yemen, the intelligence community failed to devote more analytic resources, and it failed to put one agency or official in charge. John Brennan, the senior official responsible for figuring out what went wrong, said on Thursday that only after the failed plot did the intelligence community recognize that the group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, actually posed a direct threat to the United States. [emphasis added]

This is a fairly straightforward explanation of the problem.  The problem is not individual, but rather systemic.  There are never enough analytic resources to adequately process the overwhelming volume of data collected by the IC, but that is not the primary problem.  The overarching challenge to the IC is that authority, budget, and power are spread across its agencies with no clear leadership or accountability.  Every 8-year-old kid knows what happens when one kid is in charge of building the treehouse and another kid has all the lumber and nails.  If there is to be reform–and it has yet to happen in the past eight years–consolidating budget and accountability is the most powerful lever.

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