Revisiting the Intelligence Failure

| Mon Jan. 11, 2010 9:41 PM EST

Was the underwear bomber plot an egregious breakdown of U.S. intelligence?  Bruce McQuain at QandO summarizes the case for a massive failure to connect the dots:

  1. His dad, a former minister in Nigeria, informed the US embassy there that his son had been radicalized (the dad obviously had a reason for concern).
  2. US intelligence had been following him for a while, dubbing him “the Nigerian” (one assumes there was a reason).
  3. He was on a watch list (one assumes there was a reason).
  4. He had been banned from Britain (yup, one assumes there was a reason).
  5. The British intelligence service had identified him to our intelligence agencies in 2008 as a potential threat (sigh, uh, yeah, reason).
  6. He’d just visited Yemen, an al Qaeda hotbed (given the first 5, one can reasonably guess at the reason).
  7. He bought a one-way ticket to the United States in Africa through Europe (red flag 1).
  8. He paid cash (red flag 2).
  9. He checked no luggage (red flag 3).

You can find a pretty similar outline almost anywhere. But the more we learn, the less this seems to be holding water. Let's go through the list one by one:

  1. Jim Arkedis, a former intelligence analyst: "For the record, 99 percent of the time, walk-in sources to U.S. Embassies are of poor-to-unknown quality. That includes friends and family members who walk into the embassy and claim their relatives are potential dangers. Why? Family relations are tangled webs, and who really knows if your uncle just might want you arrested in revenge for that unsettled family land dispute."
  2. This is true. But we didn't have a name, only a tip that "a Nigerian" might be planning an attack.
  3. Yes. But as the LA Times puts it, he was on a list of half a million people with "suspected extremist links but who are not considered threats."
  4. Yes, but not because of any suspected terrorist ties. From the New York Times: "[Home Secretary Alan] Johnson said Mr. Abdulmutallab’s application to renew his student visa was rejected in May after officials had determined that the academic course he gave as his reason for returning to Britain was fake....The rejection of the visa renewal appeared to have been part of a wider process initiated by British authorities this year when they began to crack down on so-called fake colleges that officials said had been established in large numbers across Britain in an attempt to elude tightened immigration controls."
  5. No, they didn't. From the Telegraph: "Diplomatic sources said that the Prime Minister’s spokesman had intended to refer to information gleaned by MI5 after the Christmas Day incident following an exhaustive examination of records going back through Abdulmutallab’s time in Britain up to October 2008."
  6. True.
  7. No, it was a roundtrip ticket.
  8. Nigeria and Ghana (where Abdulmutallab bought his ticket) are largely cash economies. Andrew Sprung tells us that Abdulmutallab "would certainly raise no alarms by paying cash."
  9. This is apparently true.

The Christmas bombing attempt might well turn out to be a serious intelligence failure. But the evidence so far suggests that the only red flags known to U.S. intelligence were (a) a walk-in warning of dubious value from Abdulmutallab's father, (b) warnings that "a Nigerian" was planning an attack, (c) Abdulmutallab's recent trip to Yemen, and (d) his lack of checked luggage. That's not very much.

We should all keep an open mind on this. But the more facts that come out, the less it seems as if the intelligence failure was really that serious. There were only a few vague warnings in the system, not the panoply of blinking red alarms that we've been hearing about. If the current information turns out to be true, it's hard to imagine that any real-life intelligence system would ever have been likely to pick up on a guy like Abdulmutallab. Before December 25th, he just didn't seem that dangerous.

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