Analysis, not info sharing, blamed for intell failure

Obama administration says IT didn't sufficiently enable correlation of data

Intelligence analysts had access to information scattered across data systems, that if pieced together, could have prevented a would-be bomber from boarding a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas Day, a White House review has found.

An unclassified version of the Obama administration’s review of the failed attack said intelligence failures related to the incident didn’t appear to be caused by a lack of information sharing but rather by a failure to correlate disparate intelligence, or “connect the dots.”

The summary report, released Jan. 7, said,“Information sharing does not appear to have contributed to this intelligence failure; relevant all-source analysts as well as watchlisting personnel who needed this information were not prevented from accessing it.”However, “information technology within the [counterterrorism] community did not sufficiently enable the correlation of data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information,” officials found.

The report also said a reorganization of intelligence agencies, such as the one that occurred after the 2001 terrorist attacks, wasn’t needed. The report said that previous barriers to information sharing between agencies had been largely overcome.

The White House review, led by Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, found that personnel from the National Counterterrorism Center and the CIA who are responsible for the government’s watch list process didn’t search all available databases to uncover additional information on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year old Nigerian allegedly tried to set off a bomb on the aircraft.

Abdulmutallab was in the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, the government's central repository on international terrorist identities that includes data about 500,000 people.

However, Abdulmutallab, didn't make the cut to be on the government’s consolidated watch list that includes data on about 400,000 people that authorities know or reasonably suspect are involved in terrorist activity. Abdulmutallab also wasn't on the no-fly list, and a smaller subset of the consolidated list with more stringent standards comprised of people considered threats to civil aviation or national security.

In addition, Abdulmutallab’s visa also wasn’t revoked because he wasn’t placed on a watch list, the review said. Also, a misspelling of Abdulmutallab’s name initially left the State Department believing he didn’t have a valid visa, officials found.

President Barack Obama directed security-related departments to take actions, many IT and technology-related, to correct the causes of what he called “systemic failure across organizations and agencies” during a speech Jan. 7. In one recommendation, Obama directed the Director of National Intelligence to accelerate IT enhancements, such as database integration, knowledge discovery and cross-database searches.

Brennan told reporters Jan. 7 that he was confident that the government has taken corrective measures that would have allowed the government to identity Abdulmutallab “as somebody of concern.”

“The National Counterterrorism Center has been working day and night for – since this Dec. 25 attempted attack, has been scouring all of the databases – identities databases as well as all-source databases – to make those correlations. And I'm confident that they have done that very thoroughly,” Brennan said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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