President calls for urgent improvements to anti-terrorism efforts

White House releases report on what went wrong with intell about Christmas Day plot

President Barack Obama today directed his national security team to take actions, many involving technology and information technology, to bolster government’s watch-listing and transportation security systems. Obama's order came in response to a failed terrorist attack on a flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day.

Obama outlined corrective steps and the findings of his administration's reviews of the attempted attack to reporters during a speech. The White House released a memo that directed heads of departments to take specific actions:

  • The State Department to review visa issuance and revocation criteria and processes to determine how technology enhancements could strengthen the process.
  • The Homeland Security Department to aggressively pursue screening technology, protocols, procedures, especially in regard to aviation and transportation technology, consistent with privacy rights and civil liberties.
  • The Director of National Intelligence to clarify and reaffirm roles for the intelligence community’s counterterrorism analytic components.
  • The Director of National Intelligence to accelerate IT enhancements, such as database integration, knowledge discovery and cross-database searches.
  • The CIA to strengthen procedures related to watch-listing information.
  • The Terrorist Screening Center that the FBI administers to conduct a thorough review of the government’s consolidated terrorist watch list and determine the visa status of all known and suspected terrorists, starting with the No Fly List.
  • The TSC to develop recommendations on whether adjustments are needed to the watch-listing system.
  • The National Counterterrorism Center to establish a dedicated capability to enhance record information on possible terrorists in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment for use on watch lists.
  • The National Security Agency to develop and put in place a training course for analysts to improve awareness of watch-listing processes.

“Taken the together these reforms will improve the intelligence community’s ability to collect, share, integrate, analyze and act on intelligence swiftly and effectively,” Obama said.

The government’s watch-listing system and aviation security measures have been under fire since the failed attack on a plane en route to Detroit.

Criticism of the watch-listing system has been stoked by reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to detonate a bomb on board, wasn’t placed on the No Fly List and his U.S. visa hadn’t been revoked, despite being in the government’s central repository of data on international terrorist identities. Screening technology also failed to detect the explosives that Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate as the plane approached Detroit.

“The U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack,” Obama said. “Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.”

The White House also released an unclassified summary version of its review of the failed attack.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

Reader Comments

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 Mark Montgomery NM

This problem was solved long ago -- it just hasn't been adopted. Systemic failure requires new holistic cure How to prevent the Fort Hood tragedy, by design. Another paper written in laymen's language is a use case scenario developed specifically for the DHS:

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 oracle2world

The easy part is "connecting the dots". The hard part is acquiring the dots, linking the dots, verifying the dots, plotting the dots, etc. Real slug-and-grunt work no one wants to do (not even contractors). That's why you end up with some minimum wage clerk making a typo that brings down a plane. (Like that maintenance worker that taped over the static ports on AeroPeru Flight 603.) In large complex systems, the more unimportant something seems, the more critical it ultimately becomes. Write that on your hand.

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 earthintelnet NYC

Summary Errors: 1) This was primarily an error, as is often the case, by the Embassy officer (or CIA officer) who interviewed the father. The same kind of mistake occurred when the Taliban walked in and offered us Bin Laden in hand-cuffs. 2) Absence of a machine-speed cross-walk among US and UK visa denials is noted. The Dept of State continues to be the runt in the litter (we have more military musicians than we have diplomats) & until the President gets a grip on the Program 50 budget, State will remain a dead man walking. 3) The intell community did not increase analytic resources against the threat (but CIA still had time to open a Climate Change center without realizing Climate Change is a fraud). Reminds us of George Tenet “declaring war” on terrorism and then being ignored by mandarins who really run the place. 4) “The watchlisting system is not broken” (page 2 bottom bold is either a lie or clinical insanity. John Brennan is responsible for the mess we call a watch system, and if the President had any honest advisors who have a clue about what is going on, Brennan’s head would be the first to roll, followed by several others. “If we are at war, we cannot have gerbils in critical positions” (quoting Madeline Albright). 5) “A reorganization of the intelligence or broader counterterrorism community is not required…” at the bottom of page 2 is at best delusional nonsense and at worst outright self-serving treason. The entire system is broken precisely because the President has no one he can trust with the combination of balls & brains & budget authority to get it right. 13 years after Aspin-Brown, we still have not implemented most of their suggestions; the U.S. intelligence community is still grotesquely out of balance; & the Whole of Government budget is still radically misdirected at the same time that our policies in the Middle East are clinically insane and ideologically corrupt. 6) Page 3 begins with either a lie or ignorance so deep as to warrant immediate dismissal of the author. The barriers to information sharing are still there, & anyone who says they are not is either remote from reality or a liar. 7) The attempt to slam CIA in favor of NCTC (and its mostly contractor butts in seats) is unacceptable. NCTC is supposed to be doing the all-source analysis and connecting the dots, and it failed. The report fails to point out that the REASON most of the dots were not connected is because analysts are still working from paper files & doing cut & paste within the physics of an 8-10 hour day. We still do not have machine speed connectivity among all the systems; we still do not have human linguists capable for catching & connecting mis-spellings in real time; & we are still not serious protecting America by a) acting morally abroad and b) acting responsibly at home.

Fri, Jan 8, 2010 Master of Business Administration

The only improvements that will make any difference in airline security is if the U.S. adopts an El Al approach of profiling each passenger purchasing a ticket. Everything else is pretty much a wasted effort.

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