In the weeks following the failed, Christmas Day attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253, policymakers and analysts rushed to solve air security. "Flurry of proposals targets air security" declared one news headline. Even the president's initial measure in response to the administration review focused on airline passengers. Last week, he did order a more widespread, faster distribution of intelligence relating to terrorism.
Aviation was the means of attack. The cause was a failure in the collection, analysis, dissemination and action on intelligence. We had a name. We had a potential motive, and we had the tactical intelligence to prevent the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab. His own father had identified the increasingly radicalized son as a threat. We must ensure that the lesson America is learning from the near-tragedy is the right one, or we are destined to be attacked again.
And the next time is more likely to be successful.
In 2002, the Congressional Joint Inquiry Into 9/11 found a dozen instances of failures of intelligence. Had we avoided any one of them, the tragedy could have been prevented. The Christmas Day terrorist attempt demonstrates how far we still have to go protect the people of the United States and the world.
The unlearned lessons of 9/11 appear to include:
• Failure to communicate. Half the failures of 9/11 occurred when one federal agency failed to share information with another that had operational responsibility. The CIA knew two of the 19 hijackers intended to enter the United States in January 2000. It failed to provide that information to the immigration service or the FBI.
In 2009, the State Department, and possibly the CIA, was informed the assailant was extremist and dangerous. Mirroring 9/11, neither informed the immigration agencies, and the State Department's consular service failed to cancel his multiple-entry visa.
• Failure of the visa process. Before 9/11, the States Department's consular service had issued or renewed visas to most, if not all, the 9/11 hijackers. This was shocking but not surprising. The decision to grant or deny a visa is usually made by the youngest, least experienced in the embassy or consulate. Often, this person views service at the visa window as a ticket to be punched before advancing to a "serious" position.
• Failure to appreciate the new al-Qaida. Before 9/11, key security agencies could not imagine a rag-tag al-Qaida, operating from desolate Afghanistan, could plan and execute a plot within our homeland. Today, we have failed to imagine the technical and organizational sophistication of the new, decentralized al-Qaida.
This al-Qaida has advanced its skills in the development and use of chemical weapons since the shoe bomber of December 2001. It is exploring bioweapons — as evidenced by the labs found in Afghanistan — but remains underappreciated, allowing al-Qaida to exploit America's vulnerability.
• Failure to address recruitment. The number of adherents to al-Qaida, including those willing to sacrifice their lives as suicide bombers, has increased dramatically. The recruiting billboard erected by the war in Iraq and the organizational reach of regional groups, such as al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, have significantly increased al-Qaida's numbers since 9/11. It is imperative the United States and its allies redouble their efforts to reduce the attraction of extremism.
• Failure of accountability. The previous administration resisted sanctioning anyone — whether a consulate or White House staff member — for the numerous failures of imagination, will or competence which led to 9/11. A culture of non-accountability contributes to bureaucratic sloppiness. This appears to have recurred in the days before Christmas 2009.
• Failure to think strategically. In February 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of U.S. Central Command, told me Somalia and Yemen were the most significant al-Qaida national units after Afghanistan. That insight was ignored. The United States pursued a war of choice in Iraq.
Eight years later, we continue to pay the price for that disastrous decision. If we respond to the Christmas attack as a tactical failure of aviation security — rather than a strategic failure of intelligence — we will add another chapter to that mistake.
The solution lies in improving our intelligence. In the words of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, we must "accelerate integration of effort among the counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and law enforcement communities to address WMD proliferation and terrorism issues. …"
The commission and others have been urging the intelligence community to improve intelligence sharing related to terrorism. Yet it appears this is exactly where the United States fell flat.
If we can avoid the myopia that followed 9/11, see Flight 253 for what it is — a failure of intelligence — and sweep away the compartmentalization and bureaucratic complacency which hobble our nation's capacity to respond strategically, that would be a gift worthy of a Christmas Day.
Bob Graham chairs the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Graham represented Florida as a U.S. senator from 1987-2005 and chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee from 2001 to 2002. He is the author of Intelligence Matters (Random House, 2004).