After significant failures in intelligence, the US tries to learn from its mistakes by looking backward.
It did that with 9/11. On Thursday, in a public report, the Obama administration has reviewed why the alleged Christmas Day bomber (a “known terrorist,” according to President Obama) was able to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
But as the 9/11 commission aptly pointed out in its 2004 recommendations – most of which were adopted – hindsight has benefits and limits.
On the plus side, it allows investigators to connect the clues pointing to an event, clues that beforehand lay scattered and unnoticed in darkness. This, though, is not the same as dealing with a clue in real time, as it becomes available and flows in as one bit with a sea of other data bits.
This difference between real time and past time means that some fixes based on a review will work to head off future threats, but some may not work – and could create problems.
For instance, the famous Church Committee investigation in the 1970s of excesses by US intelligence agencies resulted in building a wall between intelligence and law enforcement – a wall that had to be taken down in the age of terrorism in order to share information. Now agencies share data. But the creation of two intelligence offices since 9/11 has set off other turf wars.
In hindsight, the administration has learned that it has weaknesses in intelligence analysis, including a lack of responsibility for tracking “high priority threat streams.” It plans to build in that responsibility, strengthen the terrorist watch-list system, and distribute threats more rapidly and widely.
On the airport security side, it will speed up the use of full-body scanners, and also work with the national labs to develop new screening technologies. Plans are in the works to beef up the air marshal service on aircraft and improve international security standards.
In retrospect, these fixes look reasonable. They amount to tweaks to the system, rather then the systemic changes brought on by 9/11. But other factors will come into play, including human error and a nimble Al Qaeda that is also deconstructing the near hit on Christmas Day. Whether these fixes will be sufficient in real time is still an open question.
So is the issue of whether the US is adequately prepared for other possible terrorist strikes. Right now, the country is focused on air travel. But is the intelligence community using its imagination – as the 9/11 commission recommended – to anticipate other kinds of strikes? Surely Al Qaeda is.