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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fixing the disconnect



CBS’s Bob Schieffer, an old hand at the D.C. bureaucracy, warned us about what was coming on Wednesday. “The way my source put it, the American people deserve an honest assessment, and they, and the bureaucracy, are going to get it.”

It was hardly the way you want to end a Christmas vacation. President Obama had barely put his feet on Hawaiian soil when the issue of national security burst back into the national attention span. Thanks to a disaffected youth’s futile Christmas Day attempt to detonate plastic explosives secreted in his underwear on a flight approaching Detroit, the nation’s aviation and national security machinery went into overdrive — an overdrive may are saying they should have been in all along.

In the two weeks since then — those already grueling weeks of holiday and post-holiday travel — we’ve come back to pat-downs, a heavy airport presence of uniforms and guns, and no carry-on liquids besides the ones circulating in your body.

And we’ve witnessed the interagency disconnects within the national security establishment. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apprehended, it was the endgame for a chain of errors in which the CIA, the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security overlooked Abdulmutallab’s known and suspected associations (as well as the warnings of his father that his 23-year-old son was being radicalized) and failed to share and jointly interpret the information that was available.

When Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said “the system worked,” and then backtracked about a day later, it was a sign of the cultural and informational fails that still prevail, more than eight years after 9/11.

You can call it a disconnect; President Obama went further, calling it evidence of a “systemic failure” of the national security apparatus. It’s this failure Obama addressed Tuesday in an address from the White House. The speech, whose starting time was twice delayed without explanation, was in some ways a bracing shot of vintage Obama: laying out the problem at hand, then breaking down a series of solutions; not getting caught up in the ritual blame-game Beltway kabuki; keeping an eye of the prize of the larger objective.

But the challenge that confronts him is a monster, and maybe even one with politically malign motivations. Not long into the new year, the debate started within the media:

Was the security lapse that enabled Abdulmuttalab to almost commit an act of terrorism unrivaled since 9/11 just a monumental chain of oversights of a bloated, arrogant, hidebound intelligence apparatus … or was it something worse, and horrible to contemplate: a willful, deliberate attempt to undermine the national security under the Obama administration, turning a blind eye to a clear and present danger with the intention of embarrassing the administration, and endangering its credibility for political gain?



It’s otherwise difficult to understand how the warning signs about Abdulmuttalab could have been so uniformly overlooked or ignored; the apparent absence of coordination and intellectual triage is so total, it almost looks deliberate. The phrase “connecting the dots” is often used in the speculative chronology of terrorism. In the matter of Abdulmuttalab, there were no dots to be connected; he was the only dot in question, and the nation’s security agencies didn’t get it.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama got it, and said as much from the White House on Tuesday. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.

“I will accept that intelligence by its nature is imperfect. But it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it. ...”


“As we saw on Christmas Day, al-Qaida and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans,” the president said. “And we are determined not only to thwart those plans, but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all.”


“American lives are on the line,” Obama said. “So I made it clear today to my team: I want our initial reviews completed this week. I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong.

“I want those reforms implemented immediately, so that this doesn't happen again and so we can prevent future attacks. And I know that every member of my team that I met with today understands the urgency of getting this right. And I appreciate that each of them took responsibility for the shortfalls within their own agencies.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Some in the Washington intelligentsia gave him slightly better than middling marks. Interviewed by Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour on the day after the speech, Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “[T]he White House had a little bit of a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck for maybe 36 hours after this. And my guess is, the next time something like this happens -- this is a very disciplined White House -- they will do a better job.

“It's a missed opportunity. It's a mistake. It's something -- let's say, if it happens again on something like this, then I think you have got to ask some questions, why aren't they learning? But, if you look at this whole first year of the White House, in foreign policy, sure, there have been some mistakes, but, on the whole, this has been a much smoother first year for the operation of foreign policy than, say, the Clinton administration was or the Bush administration.

“The team has more or less worked together. They haven't been kind of thrown off-message. They have had some policy initiatives that aren't working as well as they would like, but that happens to everybody. On the whole, when you look at a first year of a new administration, where the party's been out of power for a long time, this has been a pretty smooth operation. That said, the Christmas bombing was not their finest hour.”

◊ ◊ ◊

After a vacation spent with one eye on events half a planet away, and their consequences. President Obama’s stepped up smartly to the plate and dug himself in. The succession of brushback pitches he’s getting from conservatives and their enablers in the right wing of the punditburo hasn’t changed his resolve or altered his way to making a principled, deliberated decision with the assistance of the best minds he can get around him.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, he actually reads a briefing book when he’s given one on vacation. Unlike that predecessor, he’s not given to rash judgments, or statements indicative of those judgments. The thinking person’s president. Imagine that.

That said, however, the president’s deliberation as he addresses the matter of fixing a profound and troubling disconnect in the circuitry of the national security grid has the potential to be a double-edged sword. The difference between deliberation and (Dick Cheney’s word) dithering is, of course, more than semantic. To a weary, painfully sensitive and often angry electorate, that difference may not be there for long.


Image credits: Obama top and bottom, Pete Souza and Chuck Kennedy (respectively), The White House. Napolitano: Via MSNBC.

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