Phi Beta Iota: From an individual who trained many of the NCTC analysts, is fully familiar with the database mess as well as the management mind-sets, and wishes to see America get the best value for its $75 billion a year. We have added emphasis (bold) to the two paragraphs below.
18 January 2010
The New York Times article provides yet more evidence that the U.S. Intelligence System is indeed broken. Now although such experienced experts as J. Briggs and Herb Meyer dislike thinking in terms of a ‘system’ I think it is a useful concept. In this case the Time’s article focuses on how this system did or did not operate in the specific case of the underwear bomber, Umar (Omar) Farouk Abdul Mutallab (how many analysts are aware that as transliterated from Arabic script his name can be spelled several ways).
Based on the evidence from the article, the U.S. Counter-Terrorism Intelligence effort consists of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) in the ODNI, CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) and an NSA Counter-Terrorism Office. The article argues that senior U.S. Government Officials failed to note, what in retrospect, were obvious warning signs of a possible al Qaeda threat to the U.S. homeland. The thrust of the article however is that working level analysts at the NCTC failed to “connect the dots” and that this failure was mirrored by CTC analysts at CIA.
The apparent basic failure lay in a false assumption by both Centers that al Qaeda was incapable of mounting sophisticated or carefully planned attacks. Although the assumption was without bases it was and probably still is accepted as fact by analysts in both Centers. This reminds one of “the Japanese lack the technical capability and training to attack Pearl Harbor” another false assumption that had disastrous consequences.
This erroneous assumption was compounded by failures of research and analysis by the analytic staff of NCTC. These failures were facilitated by what must be the most absurd organizational structure in the history of intelligence analysis. One group of some 24 analysts at NCTC are assigned as “watch list analysts”, whose job apparently is to maintain lists of names kept in several data bases including one with a reported 500,000 names. This group apparently did not interact with a second group of 300 ‘all source analysts’ whose job apparently is to sift through all available evidence to identify and asses threats to U.S. Security whether from individuals or generic, that is to connect the dots. They completely failed to do this. In the article individuals in both groups are called analysts or ‘specialist’ and are assumed to be CT experts. In point of fact when the NCTC opened this was not the case and is probably not the case now. It is an article of faith among senior intelligence officials that all analysts are the same and are interchangeable as long as they have the title of analyst. This is of course nonsense and causes unqualified people, including contractors, to be placed in sensitive analytic positions that are really beyond there abilities.
Contributing to this failure is the inexcusable fact reported in the article that of the some 80 data bases available to these analysts many are hard to use, there are apparently no relational data bases, and clearly no one has any training in the art of information retrieval and management.
Finally if one reads between the lines there were clearly multiple failures of technical leadership across the board so that managerial incompetence could not be corrected at the working level.
So when President Obama referred to a “systemic failure” he was right. The U.S. Intelligence System failed because its human sub-system (analysts) failed; its information management systems failed; and its frontline leadership sub-system failed. Its management sub-system did not fail because it was not operable in the first place.
So what will come of all this? My guess is that even more unqualified or under-qualified analysts will be ‘surged’ to NCTC and CTC, more expensive and ill designed information systems will be added to those already there, and a host of bogus statistics will be dredged up to prove that both centers actually work perfectly. And of course cash bonuses for all hands to prove what a good job they actually did.
See also: Journal: Why Intelligence Keeps Failing