US intelligence agencies at home and around the world are suffering from endemic failures in communication and information gathering which are threatening to undermine Washington's pursuit of al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Some experts believe the CIA needs a new broom
Concerns over alleged intelligence gaps that have lingered since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States have increased in recent weeks after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a US airliner and the suicide bomb attack by an al Qaeda double agent in Afghanistan which killed seven CIA officers.
As 2010 begins with the so-called "war on terror" seemingly no nearer to being won, US President Barack Obama has been handed an old set of problems to deal with; problems which stretch back to before hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
Last week, the usually unflappable Obama sought to calm fears caused by the security lapses which allowed a Nigerian man with alleged links to Yemen-based al Qaeda operatives to board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with an explosive device hidden in his underwear.
Publicly, Obama assured the American people that his administration would work fast and hard to improve security to eradicate the "human and systemic failures" behind the Christmas Day incident. But behind closed doors, it is alleged that the president used sharper language with his security chiefs, calling the incident a potentially disastrous "screw up" by the intelligence community, telling them that "we dodged a bullet but just barely."
Intelligence in conflict zones suffering
The Khost blast was one of the biggest attacks on the CIA
The inability to both anticipate and stop the nature of this evolving threat was painfully highlighted two weeks ago by the bombing inside Forward Operating Base Chapman, a well-fortified compound in Afghanistan's Khost province near the southeastern border with Pakistan.
Despite supposedly successful "deradicalization," Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi - a Jordanian jihadist captured and turned into a CIA spy - was allowed to enter the base without adequate security checks. Once inside, Balawi, who had been given a mission to infiltrate al Qaeda and pass on information on its leaders, detonated a hidden explosive, killing seven operatives and contractors and his Jordanian handler.
The attack not only showed an embarrassing lack of vigilance but also exposed the intelligence community's dearth in understanding of the situation in Afghanistan and the current capabilities of al Qaeda. Recent US intelligence suggested the terror organization's power had been diminished but the attack showed that, contrary to that belief, al Qaeda has achieved a new level of sophistication and may not be as weakened as US officials had thought.
Lack of communication and accurate intelligence
The attack also highlighted the problems which all operatives - at home and abroad - seem to encounter: that of an inability to gather and then share information they can trust.
Intel agencies have been under scrutiny since 9/11
"There is clearly a lack of communication at the heart of these problems," Giles Merritt, the director of the Security & Defence Agenda think-tank in Brussels, told Deutsche Welle. "The mechanisms for passing information are not good enough and this clearly needs to be sorted out. Intelligence agencies are meant to share information with each other and then to act on it. It's quite clear that the information is actually being shovelled over from one agency to another but not really analyzed, so it's not being acted on."
Richard Betts, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, believes that while there have been mistakes made, the steps that follow will lead to a more secure United States.
"Processes for correlating and disseminating thousands of bits and pieces of information are complex and fixing one problem sometimes complicates another," Betts told Deutsche Welle. "The recent failure to revoke the visa for the Nigerian bomber revealed a glitch in the system that has otherwise worked well in preventing any attacks inside the US since 9/11, despite al Qaeda's huge incentives to pull one off. Glitches like this will be fixed when found but some precautions to minimize the chances of attack will introduce costs the public may be reluctant to bear - for example, more intrusive airport screening or more compromises in privacy for intelligence gathering."
Read more on how the intelligence services are struggling
US troops on the ground are "starved" of accurate info
Afghanistan operatives "starved" of information
Outside of the United States, intelligence agencies are not only suffering from inefficiency but also a lack of their raw material: information.
Obama promised sweeping reforms for spy agencies
Intelligence officials on the ground in Afghanistan admitted that US operative were "so starved" of accurate on-the-ground intelligence "many say their jobs feel more like fortune telling." Major General Michael Flynn, the top NATO and US military intelligence chief in Afghanistan, even said that they were "clueless" and "no more than a fingernail deep in (their) understanding of the environment."
Richard Betts agrees: "The pool of Americans who actually really know these countries with enough inside expertise and bicultural sensitivity is very, very small," he said. "The result is significant reliance on foreign services or American immigrants which reduces the confidence the intelligence agencies may have in the reliability they get or which limits opportunities to exploit openings."
"Operatives in these regions don't have a lot of human input," said Giles Merritt. "They rely on electronic surveillance mostly. They lack people on the ground which can give them a clear picture of what is going on. It's very difficult in such a fragmented society like Afghanistan where you have tribal loyalties and regional warlords."
Major General Flynn has already called for radical structural changes to help an intelligence-gathering apparatus which "still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade."
Obama moves to shake up intelligence with reforms
Back in the US, President Obama seized the initiative and announced his intention to launch a set of ambitious reforms, including a revamp of the government's terrorist "watch-list" system which had omitted potential Christmas Day bomber Abdulmutallab from its no-fly list of people with suspected terrorist links.
Airport security will get tougher - but will it get smarter?
"I want our additional reviews completed this week. I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong," Obama said. "I want those reforms implemented immediately so that this doesn't happen again and so that we can prevent future attacks."
"It is politically necessary and proper for the president to make a dramatic effort to fix the vulnerabilities revealed by the failures," said Betts. "The specific fixes are in many cases technical matters of coordinating information technologies and distribution mechanisms. More general needs, for example deep expertise on non-western societies, and the ability of agents to operate in denied areas, are harder to deal with and will require inventive investments in human capital for the long term - and such investments may not be popular with politicians looking for immediate solutions."
Specific intelligence targeting the way forward
Giles Merritt believes that change from all-encompassing security sweeps to specific threat assessment and suspect profiling would be a good place to start.
"The big issue concerns whether profiling of suspects is politically acceptable," he said. "Politicians seem to shy away from profiling because it identifies people of specific nationality and religious beliefs and singles them out as potential terrorists. But this seems to be the best way to approach security. This even-handed approach where old ladies are strip-searched just isn't working and I think this Detroit incident is going to move the approach more toward profiling, and deeper sharing and analysis of intelligence."
"What needs to be done is a total rethink of security," Merritt added. "With airport security you need to take the collection of data, the profiling, and the monitoring out of the hands of poorly paid staff and into those of highly-trained professionals. Israel’s El Al has the best security record despite being the airline under the biggest threat because of the people they have carrying out their security.
"We also have to get over this political correctness that all passengers are the same," he said. "That's where we need a major rethink. You need to forget about the 98 percent of people who are never going to be a terrorist and then concentrate on the tiny amount of the remaining two percent who could be, applying advanced profiling and information sharing to identify potential threats."
Failures make news but successes save lives
Despite the furore over the recent intelligence blunders, Richard Betts is quick to point out that failures will always make bigger headlines than successes.
"In the weeks before the recent disasters, there were several arrests of plotters or suspects which received less publicity and which were virtually taken for granted by the public, yet which showed that the system was effectively interdicting actual or potential attacks," Betts said. "Successes sometimes are not publicized and at other times, even unknown. For example - if precautions cause a planned attack to be cancelled, we never know how successful the precautions were. Failures will inevitably get more attention - as they should - but do not in themselves necessarily discredit the whole system of counterintelligence and counterterrorism organization."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge