Intelligent Design

The CIA has pointed to the Christmas Day terrorist incident as evidence that the post-9/11 intelligence reform has failed. That self-serving diagnosis couldn't be further from the truth.

In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, some U.S. intelligence officials are sharpening their knives, planning to lay the blame for the failure to detect this plot at the feet of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). President Barack Obama "knows where to look" when assessing blame for the government's inability to connect the dots prior to the attack, claimed one anonymous intelligence official quoted in the Washington Post. In particular, the CIA, which opposed the 2004 reorganization that transferred some of the agency's responsibilities to the ODNI and the NCTC, "has barely restrained itself from shouting, 'We told you so,'" the Post reported.

This chest-thumping is not surprising. The CIA has felt vastly underappreciated since 9/11, having been faulted by senior officials and blue-ribbon commissions both for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and the intelligence community's inaccurate prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities. Some CIA loyalists clearly relished the opportunity to affix blame to another part of the intelligence community after the Christmas attack.

But the charge that we would be better off without the ODNI and the NCTC is more than self-serving -- it is also wrong, and dangerously so. The real lesson from the failure to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off a U.S.-bound flight is that intelligence reform has not gone far enough. Rather than restoring the CIA to its pre-9/11 role as king of the hill in the intelligence community, the Obama administration should further empower the NCTC, in particular by bolstering its analytical and technological capabilities so that it can more effectively lead the government's counterterrorism intelligence efforts.

As last Thursday's White House report on the Christmas attack rightly asserts, the intelligence community has become much better at sharing information since 9/11, in part due to new laws and regulations that facilitate it. What allowed the Christmas attack to occur was not a failure of information sharing, but a failure to analyze and integrate available information. The White House report acknowledges that all of the information collected by intelligence agencies about Abdulmutallab and his association with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was accessible to analysts at both the NCTC and the CIA prior to the Christmas attack. However, nobody put the pieces together that he represented an imminent threat to the United States.

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the formation of the NCTC in part to solve this very problem. Having found that the government missed signals about the 9/11 attacks because agencies failed to share key pieces of information, the commission argued that it was essential to create a body that would lead government-wide efforts to analyze terrorism intelligence, direct intelligence collection by other agencies, and plan counterterrorism operations. Congress agreed, enacting intelligence reform legislation in 2004 that made the NCTC the "primary organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence" pertaining to terrorism.

Despite the failure to connect the dots on the Christmas attack, the NCTC has actually performed quite well during its five years of operation. Backed by the ODNI and the White House, it has reduced the stovepiping of intelligence efforts and planned many successful counterterrorism operations. From a bureaucratic standpoint, one of the NCTC's greatest strengths is the nature of its workforce: Some 60 percent of its personnel are detailed to the center from other agencies. This means that NCTC officials tend to be less turf-conscious than officials in the rest of the intelligence community. Equally important, they have developed close ties to other agencies, facilitating interagency collaboration.

The White House's review makes clear that the NCTC shares some of the blame for the Abdulmutallab intelligence failure. But that is no reason to believe that the plot would have been uncovered if the NCTC did not exist. We know that the intelligence community failed both in sharing and integrating information before 9/11. We also know that the CIA, which had chief responsibility for analyzing terrorism intelligence from all sources before 2004, has a history of protecting its own turf, complicating interagency cooperation.

Moreover, the CIA has another counterterrorism responsibility that is critically important and extremely challenging: the collection of human intelligence on al Qaeda. The CIA has made tremendous progress in this mission since 9/11, but the recent suicide bombing by an al Qaeda double agent at a CIA base in Afghanistan underscores the continued difficulty of penetrating the terrorist organization and the need for the CIA to devote as much attention as possible to this task. If the CIA once again assumed chief responsibility for analyzing and integrating intelligence from all sources, it would likely suffer from the same problem of divided attention that existed prior to the 2004 reorganization.

But this is not to say that the status quo is acceptable -- far from it. The White House's review of the Christmas attack reveals that the reforms proposed by the 9/11 Commission have not been fully implemented. In discussing how the NCTC should operate in a hypothetical case, the 9/11 Commission described the new agency's role as tasking collection requirements and being accountable for tracking progress on the case. Yet lines of responsibility have remained unclear since the NCTC was formed. Obama's order that the intelligence community assign specific responsibility for investigating all leads is therefore a necessary corrective. It will also be necessary, as Obama directed, for intelligence reports involving threats to be distributed more rapidly and widely.

Yet the most critical and potentially transformative work is yet to come. Obama has asked Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board to examine ways to improve the processing and integration of intelligence information. As the Christmas attack shows, this challenge should be the focus of the next phase of intelligence reform. Ironically, this challenge has been made greater by the marked improvements in intelligence collection and sharing since 9/11: The intelligence community is now passing along so much information that the NCTC's staff of roughly 500 people cannot thoroughly digest and assess all of it.

Ultimately, the Christmas attack presents an opportunity for Obama to put his own stamp on intelligence reform. As the Obama administration prepared to take office in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel commented, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Now, the administration needs to use the sense of crisis generated by the near miss on Christmas to give the NCTC the authority, resources, and technology necessary to inventory, analyze, and act on all of the information that washes through the intelligence system.

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No Blank Checks for Yemen

Yemen's president is no U.S. yes-man -- and U.S. military aid is no panacea.

It would barely be an exaggeration to say that the only Yemeni truly excited by the prospect of expanded U.S. military aid to Yemen is President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

From the outside, it appears that Yemen could use the military aid, to be sure. Would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reportedly trained in Yemen, and the country unquestionably suffers from al Qaeda's presence. Concerned about generating a local backlash, Saleh has indicated that he would prefer to crack down selectively, favoring dialogue with some al Qaeda members over the use of force. Fighting between the government and rebels in both the north and the south is intensifying. Given these circumstances, the Pentagon has boosted its aid to the country from $4.6 million in 2006 to $67 million this year. Now, Washington is considering doubling that number, as well as training an elite unit of Yemeni security forces and improving intelligence-sharing.

On Jan. 6, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel reported from Sanaa that Yemenis welcome increased aid. But in this context, "Yemenis" does not mean the Yemeni people: It means Saleh and a small number of his closest associates. The president came to power in a military coup and has installed cronies and family members throughout the government. In Yemen, aid means aid to Saleh.


Saleh was president of North Yemen from 1977 to 1990 and has been president of the unified country since then. Since the introduction of multiparty elections following unification, he has channeled political competition to his benefit, pitting Yemen's Islamists against its socialists to maintain power. In the past decade, his grasp has weakened somewhat, as he has fought an armed insurgency in the northern Saada province since 2004 and a regional opposition movement in the south since 2007. Moreover, Saleh must cope with an increasingly independent media, despite his attempts to quash it. Still, pervasive corruption and the suppression of civil liberties have kept Saleh comfortably in charge.

An increase in aid and intelligence will provide him with more fungible resources to use as he sees fit. In contrast, the democrats struggling to challenge him stand to suffer irrevocable damage. "What [Washington] doesn't understand is that Yemen doesn't need more arms or equipment to monitor the telephone lines and Internet connections," one senior official critical of Saleh explained via email. "Saleh sucked hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget to buy arms that were [only] used for internal purposes to secure his rule and his family. We need a better government and more real democracy."

Simply put, providing more aid to Yemen will make the situation worse. The war on terrorism has already provided Saleh with a pretext for the surveillance and persecution of journalists and opposition activists. Plus, he has cultivated ties with radical clerics despite paying lip service to working with the United States.

For instance, Saleh has developed a close relationship with Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, the rector of al-Iman University, a documented al Qaeda recruiting ground. (The U.S. Treasury Department has for years listed Zindani as a financier of terrorism.) In the early part of this decade, Zindani's political party started moving to the center, eventually forming an opposition alliance with the Yemeni Socialist Party. In a bid to maintain his own relevance, Zindani reached out to Saleh. The president supported his creation of an organization to "enjoin the good and forbid the evil": promoting extreme interpretations of religious law, self-censorship by the press, vigilantism against moderate critics, and limits on women's freedom.

This willingness to cozy up with people committed to radicalizing Yemeni youth and encouraging violence suggests that Saleh will do little to help the United States fight terrorism. Rather, Saleh will use U.S. funds to continue to monitor and repress his domestic opponents.

There are committed democrats in Yemen, from a variety of ideological backgrounds, from inside the regime and the opposition. And there are people ready to tackle Yemen's development challenges and promote a climate of moderation. I've been traveling regularly to Yemen since 2004, conducting research on the relationship between Islamists and leftists in Yemen's opposition parties. Throughout this time, I have maintained correspondence with Yemeni journalists and political activists from a wide range of ideological positions. They are united in their concern about expanding U.S. involvement in Yemen, understanding just how badly it is likely to turn out for them and their country.

In part, Yemeni reformers are wary because such assistance has already contributed to radicalization. The use of unmanned drones, for example, goes back to 2002 at least. The combination of the perceived infringement on Yemeni sovereignty and high civilian death tolls caused by drone strikes has unquestionably helped fuel anti-American sentiment. Now, my Yemeni sources worry the Saleh regime will use additional military funds to crack down on legitimate political dissent and pad its coffers, rather than fighting actual terrorists and providing desperately needed services and infrastructure.

"Saleh is worried about his own survival, along with his family," writes one embittered politician. "The Yemeni people have never been a worry for him." Instead, they worry that Saleh will continue to fuel radicalism even while "fighting" it, thereby creating the very threat that keeps U.S. dollars flowing.

The United States' interest in Yemen has clearly been piqued. But information and analysis lag far behind this interest. As a Yemeni official told me, "The guys in D.C. aren't creative"; they throw money at the problem rather than working to solve it. In Yemen, Saleh is part of the problem. Clear policy alternatives might not be available yet -- but writing a blank check will certainly do nothing but fuel the radicalization the United States seeks to fight.

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