John Stokes

The failures of American intelligence

The failures of American intelligence
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The terrorist attacks on 9/11 succeeded because US intelligence failed to bring the various pieces of information together to prevent them. The attempted terrorist attack on a North West Airlines plane headed for Detroit almost succeeded because US intelligence failed to bring different pieces of information together that would have prevented the bomber getting on the plane.

Between 2001 and today, the US has spent around $40 billion on counter terrorist improvements and even more on trying to improve intelligence. And yet, nothing much seems to have changed.

In the current case, there was intelligence that the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda was using a ‘Nigerian’ as a bomber. There was information from the bomber’s own father that had been provided to the US embassy in Lagos that his son was a would-be terrorist. There were intercepts from the National Security Agency that suggested an attack was imminent. And so on. And, yet, none of these pieces were brought together, in an eerie replay of 9/11. If the bomber himself had not been so inept, the North West flight would almost certainly have been destroyed.

So what lies behind this mess? First, the Department of Homeland Security, which was created after 9/11 by President Bush to satisfy public criticism that he wasn’t doing enough. The DHS is now the largest bureaucracy in the world and has become a legend for its own incompetence and inability to get anything done – so much so that from its very inception it has struggled to fill senior positions which are seen as a poisoned chalice by ambitious apparatchiks.

Second, is the inability of the intelligence community to do anything but pay lip service to reform. Many cosmetic changes have happened since 9/11, but the reality remains that each intelligence agency sometimes appears more protective of its own turf and secrets than it is of national security. President Obama himself had to step in earlier this month to resolve a series of disputes between the Director of National Intelligence (the man in charge) and the head of the CIA (his subordinate), because CIA was refusing to carry out the DNI’s orders. As usually happens in Obamaworld, the solution was a weak compromise which has reinforced the status quo ante.

What is now going on in Washington is exactly what happened after 9/11: much hand-wringing and mud-slinging, with enough blame being passed around to satisfy and infuriate everyone. There will be a major investigation, of course, and a bunch of changes will be announced. But, if 9/11 is anything to go by, few of the changes will ever be implemented and America and its allies will remain vulnerable to smart terrorists who do their homework and understand the opportunities that an inert bureaucracy presents.