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Failed Christmas Day Terror Attack Could Lead To Major Changes In Intelligence, Security

President Obama received information in a private briefing leading him to conclude that the failed Christmas Day attack by a Nigerian national could have been prevented, according to the New York Times. This would explain the consecutive days of televised statements and his assessment yesterday that there were “human and systemic failures” that led to the attack.

The president was told during a private briefing on Tuesday morning while vacationing here in Hawaii that the government had a variety of information in its possession before the thwarted bombing that would have been a clear warning sign had it been shared among agencies, a senior official said.

Two officials said the government had intelligence from Yemen before Friday that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda there were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack. While the information did not include a name, officials said it would have been evident had it been compared with information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day.

The government also had more information about where Mr. Abdulmutallab had been and what some of his plans were.

Some of the information was partial or incomplete, and it was not obvious that it was connected, the official said, but in retrospect it now appears clear that had it all been examined together it would have pointed to the pending attack. The official said the administration was “increasingly confident” that Al Qaeda had a role in the attack, as the group’s Yemeni branch has publicly claimed.

While some of this can read like an example of hindsight being 20/20, the problem to which Obama alluded in his speech was that critical information wasn’t shared between agencies in the intelligence community. That sounds eerily familiar, like the same turf wars and the same guarding of intelligence that we heard about after 9/11.

What you can argue with is whether the plea from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father should be enough to get him on the terrorist watch list or to have his already-issued, multiple-entry visa revoked. As Spencer explained, this may be more about policy decisions than failures within the lines of current law. And those policy decisions, if changed, will lead to tens of thousands of false positives, and people banned from this country based on rumor or bad information, and more foreigners who were eager to study in this country and contribute to its economy thinking better of it and deciding it not worth the hassle.

I’m so old that I can remember when, in 2006, CBS ran a piece about how many thousands of people were on the no-fly list for what seemed like hysterical and paranoid reasons. There’s a common-sense failure with Abdulmutallab: it is very clear in retrospect he should not have been on that plane. If we decide as the result of that common-sense failure that we want to restrict the standard for either visa revocation or placement on the no-fly — which, realistically, will both imply additional government surveillance and targeting — fine. But then don’t complain about such itchy-trigger finger no-fly placement or a move to restricting foreigners’ access to American soil. How much hearsay — or, perhaps more accurately, how little — should be required to keep someone out of the U.S.?

I’m not saying a better balance can’t be struck. I’m saying it’s a balance. And right now, the very understandable fear that someone can slip through and kill people on an airplane is inclining us to tip the scales in the opposite direction. If that’s where we’re going as a country, let’s be open about it and debate it thoroughly.

I actually appreciate Obama taking ownership of what he perceives as deficiencies in how intelligence is distributed across agencies, and working to fix those perceived problems. Certainly President Bush, who never took such responsibility, never had an opposition party so quick to criticize about failed plots, and whose own intelligence systems – and the release of Guantanamo prisoners into Saudi Arabia where they took art therapy classes and subsequently joined Al Qaeda in Yemen – arguably led to this particular incident, was not the model to follow.

But there’s a potential for overreaction here. And not just with tightening security and intelligence policies – senior officials are talking about more airstrikes in Yemen, at a time when we don’t know the consequences of the other airstrikes this month, and whether or not they have been counter-productive, creating more scenes of civilian deaths in a Muslim country.

We need to weigh these competing pressures judiciously, and make policy decisions based on best practices rather than in a bid to stop partisan attacks. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, in the final analysis, the incident in question may prove that Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen isn’t equipped with the technical know-how to carry out attacks in the United States.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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