Obama Drops Intelligence Czar

The decision of President Barack Obama to drop retired Admiral Dennis Blair, his Director of National Intelligence (DNI), has led to his resignation from the post with effect from May 28,2010. He has chosen to resign instead of waiting for the President to name his successor after being informed by Mr.Obama of his decision to replace him. His announcement that he was quitting came on May 21, 2010, three days after the Senate Intelligence Committee had come out with a report specifying 14 intelligence failures relating to the unsuccessful attempt by a Nigerian student trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen to blow up a US flight from Amsterdam as it was about to land in Detroit on December 25,2009. The list of 14 failures named by the Committee is annexed.

Ever since the Christmas Day incident, there were indications that Admiral Blair had lost the confidence of Mr.Obama. His role as the co-ordinator of the intelligence community of 16 agencies, as the supervisor of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and as the driving force behind efforts to improve the collection of human and technical intelligence relating to terrorism came under a cloud. There were reports that Mr.Obama had started dealing directly with other officials like the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mr.Leon Panetta, and the President’s Counter-Terrorism Adviser Mr.John Brennan. Media reports had alleged that Mr.Obama had sidelined Admiral Blair without removing him from his post.

The exit of Admiral Blair was, therefore, not a surprise, but it was interesting that Mr.Obama took five months to decide to replace him even though it became evident after the Christmas Day incident that the DNI had not been able to perform effectively the tasks of co-ordination and joint action for which he was handpicked by Mr.Obama in January 2009.

Mr.Obama’s decision to replace Admiral Blair has come at a time when Mr.Obama has failed to make headway with his policies in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea and has been unable to make Pakistan act vigorously against Al Qaeda and the Talibans, which continue to target the US homeland. While the ground situation in Afghanistan continues to be bad, that in Iraq has started deteriorating with renewed Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism. He has been unable to make Iran and North Korea reverse their nuclear policy. North Korea’s action in sinking a South Korean naval ship killing many South Korean naval personnel is a challenge not only to South Korea, but also to the US presence and leadership in the Pacific area. There has been an erosion of US leadership in the East as well as the West Asian regions and the problem states of the world such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan no longer have a fear of the US.

The replacement of Admiral Blair in the wake of the nervousness caused in the US by the failed attempt of Faisal Shahzad, the US citizen of Pakistani origin, to cause an incendiary explosion in the Times Square, New York, on May 1 would help in diverting public attention away from the gaps in Mr.Obama’s own leadership by focusing on the gaps in the leadership qualities of Admiral Blair, which have enabled foreign-based terrorists– whether Al Qaeda or the Tehrik-a-Taliban Pakistan — to revive their attacks against the US, whether in the Khost area of Afghanistan where they killed seven CIA officers in the last week of December last or in the US homeland where two surprise attacks planned in stealth failed not because of the capabilities of the US intelligence, but thanks to the alertness of the public.

The post of DNI was created in 2004 to coordinate the work of the US intelligence community and to supervise that of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC). This was one of the recommendations of the National Commission, which had enquired into the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US homeland. Admiral Blair was the third incumbent of the post. The previous two under Mr.George Bush were Mr. John Negroponte and Mr. John McConell. One had expected that the fact that the DNI works directly under the President and draws his status and authority from him would enable him to perform the role of intelligence co-ordinator effectively. But the expectations were belied.

Admiral Blair, like his two predecessors, was able to co-ordinate effectively only the budgetary part of the work — that is, having the total intelligence budget approved by the Congress and deciding on the allocations of individual agencies. He was unable to co-ordinate effectively the operational part of his work — that is, setting the intelligence collection tasks for different agencies and getting the intelligence collected by different agencies integrated in a single stream, analysed, assessed and followed up. A DNI can perform the operational co-ordination effectively only if the heads of the agencies keep him in the picture regarding their important operations and share with him all important intelligence at every stage of their processing.

None of the three DNIs since the post was created in 2004 was able to make the chiefs of individual agencies share with him all that needed to be shared. There was no common understanding of what needed to be shared. The chief of every agency decided this according to his own whims and fancies. Neither Mr.Bush nor Mr.Obama was able to call the heads of individual agencies to order. The US intelligence community lacked the culture of joint action similar to what one finds in the Joint Chiefs of Staff mechanism in the Armed Forces. Instead of creating and heading an integrated intelligence staff, the DNIs were functioning in an ad hoc non-integrated manner.

The National Commission wanted the creation of the NCTC under the leadership of the DNI to ensure the integration of the entire intelligence process relating to terrorism—–collection, collation, analysis, assessment and follow-up action. The terrorist attempts on Christmas Day and on May 1 showed weaknesses in the integration process six years after the post of DNI and the NCTC were created.

The exit of Admiral Blair will not remove the deficiencies unless and until the entire counter-terrorism mechanism is overhauled and made to function in an integrated manner. There are lessons for India too because one has the impression that after his visit to the US earlier this year, Shri P.Chidambaram, our Home Minister, seems to have come back with some admiration for the NCTC and has been trying to create a similar set-up in India. It is necessary to study what went wrong with it in the US so that we can ensure that similar weaknesses do not creep into our system.

What makes the difference between a good intelligence community and a bad one is not the number of its staff, its gadgetry and budgets alone, but its culture of joint action. If this culture is missing, thousands of intelligence personnel and billions of dollars alone will not win the fight against terrorism. None of the three DNIs who have held office since 2004 has succeeded in creating this culture.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: [email protected]

ANNEXURE

LIST OF 14 INTELLIGENCE FAILURES CITED BY THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE

FAILURE TO CONNECT THE DOTS

The Senate Intelligence Committee found 14 intelligence failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to travel to Detroit on Christmas Day :

— The State Department should have revoked Abdulmutallab’s U.S. visa based on information available to the department.

— Abdulmutallab wasn’t placed on any of the terrorist watchlists because the standards were interpreted too rigidly and may be too complicated to address terrorist threats.

— Key intelligence reports weren’t reported to all appropriate CIA individuals and offices.

— A CIA division at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., didn’t search databases that contained reports related to Abdulmutallab.

— The CIA didn’t disseminate key reports until after the attempted attack.

— A name search by the CIA Counterterrorism Center was too limited and failed to uncover key reports about Abdulmutallab.

— Analysts at the CIA Counterterrorism Center didn’t connect the reporting on Abdulmutallab, focusing instead on Yemen -based threats from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula .

— Because her computer was wrongly configured, an FBI counterterrorism analyst couldn’t access all the relevant reports even though they were in the FBI’s system.

— The National Counterterrorism Center’s directorate of intelligence wasn’t properly organized to connect the reporting on Abdulmutallab.

— The National Counterterrorism Center’s Watchlisting Office didn’t conduct additional research to find more derogatory information to put Abdulmutallab on a watchlist.

— The National Security Agency didn’t take all available actions that could have provided information on Abdulmutallab.

— Analysts didn’t connect key reports partly identifying Abdulmutallab and didn’t disseminate all relevant reporting.

— The NSA didn’t select Abdulmutallab for watchlists based on information that only partly identified him.
— Intelligence analysts were focused primarily on threats to U.S. interests in Yemen from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula rather than on potential threats to the U.S.

B. Raman

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: [email protected]

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