Sales in National Review Online: Failures in Information Sharing in Christmas Bomber Case

"Why, after dozens of statutes, executive orders, academic papers, and op-eds extolling the virtues of information sharing, were our intelligence agencies still hoarding data?" asks Professor Nathan Sales in the National Review Online, referring to the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the al-Qaeda operative responsible for a failed attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas day.

"The Christmas plot represents a colossal information-sharing failure," says Sales. "Because our intelligence agencies didn’t have an incentive to share the mounting clues that al-Qaeda was planning something big, we missed the chance to detect and disrupt a potentially catastrophic attack. Eight years after 9/11, the feds still haven’t figured out how to connect the dots."

Sales attributes this type of failure to two things prized by intelligence agencies: influence and turf. Intelligence agencies want the White House to rely on their judgment more than that of their rivals. Intelligence agencies also want to protect their turf, running their operations as they see fit, without interference from bureaucratic competitors, he says.

Intelligence failures will persist, Sales says, until policymakers recalibrate the incentives within the intelligence community. He suggests that measures such as meaningful incentives for individuals, new employee-performance metrics, and incentives at the agency-wide level might help combat these problems.

Information Sharing and the Christmas Bomber, National Review Online, January 21, 2010. By Nathan A. Sales.

"On December 25, who knew what?

"According to a New York Times report, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser knew from his counterpart in Saudi Arabia that al-Qaeda operatives were hiding bombs in their nether regions. The National Security Agency had intercepted communications suggesting that al-Qaeda intended to use an unnamed Nigerian to strike the U.S. around Christmas. It also knew that an 'Umar Farouk' had volunteered for an attack.

"Abdulmutallab’s father had warned the State Department and CIA about his son’s increasingly radical bent, and other intercepts revealed that Abdulmutallab had been in contact with Anwar al-Alwaki, a Yemen-based radical. (Al-Alwaki was last seen trading emails with Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army major who went on a jihadist shooting spree at Fort Hood in early November.) Finally, State knew that Abdulmutallab was the proud owner of a visa to travel to the U.S.

"Yet the warning signs weren’t widely shared. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone to tell the FBI, the nation’s chief domestic intelligence agency. Nor did anyone inform Homeland Security, which maintains lists of terror suspects who are either barred from flying or who get a little extra screening before they’re allowed on a plane."