Cross-posted at Current Intelligence
The Christmas Day attack has exposed a broader systemic failure in the entire post-9/11 approach to intelligence: the “over collection” of information. It is leading, once again, to an ever-expanding bureaucracy of stovepiped analysts disconnected from real threat activity. In one of many cringe-inducing situations since 12/25, the Skeptical Bureaucrat recently highlighted this painful exchange between "senior State Department officials" and the press during a briefing following the release of the Department's Security Review of the Christmas Day attack
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- the interview. As far as being anything else, no, I don’t think there was – I don’t think the not knowing that he didn’t have a visa, not reporting that – and the report says that. It says: “A determination to revoke his visa, however, would have only occurred if there had been a successful integration of the intelligence by the CT community, resulting in his being watch-listed.” So --
QUESTION: So even if he was he was spelled – even if it was spelled right and you knew he had a visa, he still wouldn’t have been – it still wouldn’t have been revoked?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s correct.
There is more Q&A here, but the exchange gives you an idea of the complexity of the failure. Numerous embarrassing anecdotes leaked over the past two months -- from a CIA analyst waiting on a picture to some $12/hr contractor "misspelling" Abumutallab's name – expose an ungovernable system devoid of imagination and will.
Marc Ambinder noted that within the intelligence community (IC),
There had been plenty of discussions about Yemen, and the U.S. was clearly concerned about the fertile soil there for extremism -- but no policy maker seems to have taken the intelligence about AQAP's intentions seriously enough to significantly alter counterterrorism policies regarding AQAP's ability to threaten the U.SThat, however, is always the failure when an intelligence failure occurs, in the United States or in any country in the world. Bureaucratic, moribound intelligence organs focusing on major threats (USSR, Israel), fail to see the emerging threats in front of them (Hizbullah, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya). Even the suggested solutions appear to be conventional: better training, more information sharing, the application of “structured methods,” etc.
Yet a broader problem is hinted at in this January 27th post at Govexec.com:
The National Counterterrorism Center does not have enough analysts to comb through the thousands of pieces of terrorism-related information it receives every day, even though a plan to cut millions of dollars from its budget has been reversed, NCTC Director Michael Leiter told House lawmakers on Wednesday… Each day, the NCTC receives more than 5,000 pieces of terrorist-related information and reviews 5,000 names of suspected terrorists, Leiter said.There is a broader systemic failure in the entire post-9/11 approach to intelligence: the over-collection of information. In the rush to find and “connect” dots after 9-11, the focus of information collection became too broad, encompassing too many sources, and offering little direct authority for possible response. The result is disparate points of information get caught up in the cogs of bureaucratic processes disconnected from any reason to act.
Information collection on such a vast scale – 5000 pieces of information per day, according to NCTC officials -- is a sign of systemic weakness. It shows an inability to pinpoint current and emerging threats at their source, and to focus analytical capability at those known threats. Instead, analysts sit a desk each working day, reading thousands of pieces of “information” that have little or no connection to real threat activity. In this environment, conventional wisdom becomes the most intellectually expedient answer to policy maker’s demands.
The answer lies in redirecting collection toward real-world threats, not loose dots of information. If we were better prepared in Yemen, then we would have never missed Abumutallab, regardless of how a $12/hr data entry clerk spelled his name.
After September 11th, senior policy makers and bureaucrats feasted on an avalanche of executive-level attention and, more important, funding. It was a brief moment in time when real reforms could have made the IC an effective defense against the United States’ myriad threats. Instead, bureaucrats without real experience managing information were given money to expand collection based on personal whims and the inevitable interest in maintaining their pockets of power.
The “one-stop shop” portal became a mantra of the IC. “Watchlists” were established, supposedly designed to be single-sources of information on all suspected threats. None of this was ever designed to fix systemic problems, despite what the brochures said. Rather, it only added to the inevitable stovepiping of information. So many one-stop shop portals and single source databases were implemented that bureaucrats responsible for “information sharing” began to demand integration of the portals.
This is where my experience as a library manager kicks in. Information collection is, by nature, an expensive cost with few immediate or tangible benefits whether it is an oil company library or an analytical team in a ministry of energy. One of the only means of adding sustaining value to information collection services is by promising subject specialization and service exclusivity. In other words, offering quality versus quantity.
Government bureaucrats, unskilled in the day-to-day work of research and information management, tend to see value in collecting more information, not better information. They also tend to rely on complex technological solutions to support collection, rather than real-time command and control. Bad idea. Professional experience has shown me, at least, that human-based management is always more effective than IT solutions. The failure of the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) is a case where a one-stop shop portal, based on an proven IT “solution,” failed to support its underlining mission.
The powers that be are failing again to address the problem of achieving quality over quantity in collection and analysis. The govexec.com article goes on to report that the very points of weakness, such as unusable “watch list” databases, are expecting further expansion. Do you feel safer?