In the wake of the attempted Christmas bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, once again criticism has focused on failure to connect the poor, overworked dots. Yet, however understandable this reaction, Rome is burning in a metaphoric sense and we are attacking dots. We must wake up.
Consider several stunning — indeed staggering — pieces of information. First, Mike Flynn, chief intelligence officer for NATO forces in Afghanistan, informs us in an unclassified paper released by a Washington think tank that the U.S. intelligence community — read CIA — is making at best a “marginal” contribution to our strategy in Afghanistan. Flynn goes on in direct yet scathing examples to highlight the flaws and failures in our intelligence effort.
Second, seven CIA officers and one Jordanian intelligence officer are killed by a suicide bomber in Khost, Afghanistan, in retaliation for the Predator attack that eliminated Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in late 2009. The bomber was a “double” who obviously convinced U.S. and Jordanian intelligence otherwise. While all the details are still not clear, the question of whether something is rotten or wrong in Langley is not a cheap shot.
Meanwhile, Yemen now emerges as a hotbed for al Qaeda. Yet for years, this was well known. And members of Congress have been clamoring for more action there.
And we are hard at work connecting the dots.
As this column has frequently observed, America’s capacity for strategic thinking and fixating on the critical rather than politically explosive and short-term headlines is decidedly limited. After Detroit, no president could be seen as not reacting. The recollection of President George W. Bush’s delayed reaction to Hurricane Katrina and his father’s to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are textbook cases of the political dangers of under reaction.
But despite the public wailings, we are still not organized or even prepared for many of the dangers and uncertainties of the 21st century. Return to the intelligence community. After September11, 2001, when dots dominated our thinking and reactions, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created to integrate the some 16 different and separate intelligence agencies scattered throughout the government. There were many shortcomings of this attempt to rationalize intelligence and give the nation better use of the tools it has to cope with al Qaeda and terror in the hands of radicalized Jihadis.
Currently, the DNI is the very capable retired Admiral Dennis Blair. But like his predecessors, the admiral has huge responsibility and little authority to order and direct the intelligence community in two vital areas — money and people. The consequences are almost self-evident.
The two Goliaths of the intelligence community are the CIA and the Pentagon, which controls the National Security Agency and the very expensive “national” means of electronic and satellite intelligence gathering. No CIA director under the current scheme can or will voluntarily cede authority to the DNI. A clear example is who selects station chiefs for foreign posts. DNI tried and failed, and CIA retains that task.
Similarly, no secretary of defense is willingly going to lose authority over the many tens of billions of dollars that go into national means for intelligence collection. And parallel flaws infect the Department of Homeland Security. Worse, our political system has become so partisan as to make rational and pragmatic attempts to deal with these security and intelligence challenges and crises virtually unworkable.
The failure to prevent the Christmas bomber from boarding that flight was not missing the dots. It was the failure to assess from a strategic sense what the dangers and uncertainties are and forcing the system to respond in practical and well-thought-out responses recognizing that no system is perfect. Afghanistan is the current poster child for these weaknesses. The administration has no choice but to let its current strategy play out. But where is Plan B?
One opportunity does exist. The Pentagon is conducting the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review. The State Department has elected to conduct a parallel foreign policy review. What is needed desperately is a national security review that is serious and that will be implemented no matter where chips may fall. The September 11 Commission attempted that with some but not complete success.
If we are to be safe and secure, we have no alternative except to conduct a blunt, honest and entirely objective assessment of the realities, uncertainties and choices we face. This must include the role of Congress. And this exercise will not and cannot work unless we are prepared to assign not merely accountability but authority to act.
If this cannot be done, we will be trapped in an eternal struggle to connect the dots while the modern-day equivalent of Rome is truly burning.
Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was syndicated by UPI.