Head of 9/11 Commission: Christmas intel errors were different

Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor
Speaking at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC, Lee Hamilton, a member of President Obama’s inner circle of national security advisers, spoke about the intelligence failures around the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a US airliner.

A former vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission and a member of President Obama’s inner circle of national security advisers says the Christmas Day terrorist attempt was the result of problems in analysis and data management that won’t be solved by reorganizing the nation’s intelligence bureaucracy.

“9/11 was a failure to share information [whereas] what we had Christmas Day was a failure to analyze and to integrate” relevant information on the bombing suspect, says Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman and now president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

At a Monitor breakfast Thursday, Mr. Hamilton said a focus on structural changes to the intelligence system would very likely distract policymakers in the fight against a sophisticated, agile, and adaptive enemy.

“I do not see this as a structural problem,” Hamilton says. “I see it as a situation where a number of government employees … simply missed things they should have caught.”

The information trickling out on the Christmas Day attack – including from Obama perhaps as early as Thursday afternoon – will highlight basic but egregious analysis mistakes, he said.

“It is fundamentally a data management problem. How do you manage billions, not millions but billions, of bytes of information every day?” he says, adding that it is "a colossally difficult job.”

Intelligence system overhaul

Now is not the time for a major system overhaul that could take three to five years, he says. Rather, the need is to address the problems revealed by the failed bombing attempt, and to realize that the planners of the Christmas Day attack are doing their own post-mortem of the event.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah, the Nigerian suspected of blowing up a Detroit-bound flight, was reportedly trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen, which took responsibility for the bombing attempt.

“These guys in Yemen are examining this and saying, ‘How did we screw up?’ ” Hamilton says. “They are going to try to correct it, and they are going to try to come at us again.”

Defending national intelligence director

Hamilton acknowledges the criticisms of those who say the nation’s intelligence system has become more bureaucratic and unwieldy with the post-9/11 reforms, as well as those who say the position of director of national intelligence (DNI) – created at the recommendation of Hamilton’s commission – has been a failure.

But he stands by the decision to create the DNI post.

“Somewhere in the government you have to have someone who forces the sharing of information,” Hamilton says, “and somewhere you have to bring together all the bites of information our government produces every day.” And, he says, limitations were attached to the DNI’s powers that should now be removed.

“That issue will be taken up again after this incident,” he predicts.

Chasing Al Qaeda endlessly?

As for the broader battle with Islamic extremism, Hamilton foresees a decade ahead where a “sophisticated enemy” continues decamping from the places where the US pursues them to places “where we’re not” whether it’s Yemen or Somalia or Sub-Saharan Africa.

In that context, the US pattern of responding to evidence of Al Qaeda activity in a country with a sudden rush of military and other aid won’t solve the problem, he says. “We see them growing in Yemen, so we immediately triple our aid to Yemen. Is that the answer? I doubt it.”

From that perspective, was Obama’s decision to substantially increase the American footprint in Afghanistan wrong?

“I wouldn’t say it was the wrong decision,” said this adviser to the president, after the event. “What the president did was to escalate the war and narrow the political objectives at the same time. No talk of implanting democracy or nation-building. He’s talking about dismantling Al Qaeda. That approach makes sense to me.”


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