Obama promised to improve our intelligence system. But how good can it get?

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Jan. 7 2010 8:15 PM

Taming the Mouse

Obama promised to improve our intelligence system. But how good can it get?

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man suspected of attempting to blow up Northwest 253.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

In the cat-and-mouse game that is intelligence gathering, President Obama promised Thursday to make the cat stronger, faster, and smarter. But ultimately, he suggested, the only real solution is to tame the mouse.

In a 13-minute speech delivered in the White House State Dining Room, Obama declined to assign blame for the failure to stop the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. He instead called it a "systemic failure" and outlined a series measures to keep it from happening again: improve airport screening technology, assign responsibility for particular intelligence cases to particular officers, and lower the bar for who gets put on terrorist watch lists like the no-fly list.

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Obama emphasized that the "underwear bomb" wasn't another 9/11, intelligence-wise. The problemwasn't that American intelligence officials didn't have enough information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he boarded a plane in Amsterdam and tried to detonate a bomb in his pants in the air above Detroit. Nor was it their failure to share the information they had. Rather, it was "a failure to connect and understand" that intelligence. The agencies had enough dots—they just failed to connect them.

Three dots loomed especially large. The first was a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria in November by Abdulmutallab's father, who warned that his son had become an Islamic extremist and was possibly hiding in Yemen. The second was a vague report of a possible attack from Yemen involving a Nigerian. And the third was a general warning that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to attack not just American interests in Yemen, but also America itself. (One of the more embarrassing dots is the State Department's failure to realize Abdulmutallab had a valid U.S. visa—because of  a misspelling of his name.)

As for who failed to connect these dots, fingers had been pointing to Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. And with some reason: The NCTC is the organization charged with integrating and analyzing intelligence data collected by the 16 national intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, and NSA. Adding to the fire was the New York Daily News report that Leiter had refused to come home from his ski vacation after news of the attempted bombing.

Obama did his best to snuff out the blame. Leiter was in contact with the administration and other agencies, Obama's advisers said, and was given permission to take his annual leave only after consulting with the White House. Nor was the NCTC to blame. In a briefing after the president's speech, counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan tried to jump on the grenade. "I let him down," he said. But Obama had preempted him: "Ultimately, the buck stops with me," Obama said. "When the system fails, it is my responsibility."

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