The statements made by the White House this week, about the systemic failure that let young Abdulmutallab get on a passenger jet to the US on Christmas Day, have been chillingly incompetent. The principal impression has been one of bizarre inexperience, haplessness, and lack of judgment. Although I had some sympathy with Juan Williams’ complaint on Fox News Sunday this morning – that right-wing pundits do nothing but look for ways to blame Obama for everything – the fact is that the Obama administration has performed very poorly in relation to the Knickerbomber.
I made the case at “contentions” on Friday that the administration’s invocation of an analytical surprise – that Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has moved from “aspirational” to “operational” – was disquieting. There is not enough room in a short post to develop this concern fully, so I focused on the issue of whether that analytical conclusion should be required before we can keep people with known terrorist associations off of airplanes.
The implication of John Brennan and Janet Napolitano was that such a requirement exists. Within our system for developing the no-fly list, which is extracted from the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center (and based on the TIDE database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC), it is apparently the case that a tie-breaking criterion, for thinking someone who’s suspicious is really, really suspicious, is whether his terrorist associates have been pronounced “operational” by analysts. Whether this is the case some or all of the time, the clear statement of Obama’s officials was that it was the case for Abdulmutallab and AQAP. The White House review made the same main point.
Now, I have long experience with processes of exactly this kind: comparing intelligence to warning criteria, including criteria for preemptive action. So I’m not talking out of my hat here, but from an excellent understanding of how this works. I doubt that it was the case, for example, that the information we had about Abdulmutallab was actively dismissed at all, much less that it was dismissed explicitly because of the analytical assessment that AQAP was still “aspirational.” It doesn’t work that way. Indeed, we are informed that the FBI intended to detain Abdulmutallab for questioning when his flight arrived in Detroit. He was of enough interest to authorities to prompt that level of pursuit.
The real problem is what everyone on earth except, apparently, US federal officials, can immediately see. Hel-LO.
1. Man with terrorist associations whom the FBI wants to question.
2. Man with terrorist associations whom the FBI wants to question on a passenger jet flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Knock-knock? Anybody home? Hello, McFly? The system’s decisions here seem surreally analogous to, say, letting a suspicious-looking man come into your home so you can question him about his intentions.
No, the problem lies not in our misunderstanding of the warning intelligence, but in our criteria for action. It lies in our fundamental posture, of which appealing to the analytical categories “aspirational” and “operational” is only a symptom. In the matter of judging terror groups to be operational versus aspirational, an airplane bombing is one of the most likely indicators of the former. Shall we really wait for terrorists to prove themselves operational in this manner before taking preemptive action – like, say, putting suspicious men on the no-fly list?
This is quite obviously a truly idiotic posture, one that begs the question what we even want to have intelligence for – yet according to Brennan and Napolitano, it’s the one we have adopted. The proximate decisions of our officials, whether in intelligence or law enforcement, were constrained not so much by the aspirational-operational divide as by the very posture of a system that makes the divide significant.
And yet. Brennan and Napolitano presented this analytical nicety as a reason for our failure to keep Abdulmutallab off of the plane from Amsterdam. I had the most discouraging sense of déjà vu, watching them speak on air on Thursday, because like most people who have achieved a level of executive responsibility in their careers, I have heard things like this before: from subordinates. Indeed, in my long-ago past as a junior officer, I probably advanced such explanations myself at one time or another, because there’s a time in our lives when most of us do still think systemic explanations are definitive. Whatever less-accountable foolishness I may have perpetrated in that regard, I did learn over time the lesson all executive leaders learn, which is that if there was no breakdown of the system but something still went wrong, there’s a problem with the system’s core assumptions.
Moving to that stage is rapid and automatic, under effective leadership. The judgment that the system’s existing assumptions produced the wrong result is an interim step, and you don’t get points for checking that block. You just get dinged if you don’t. By the time I was no more than a Navy lieutenant – a captain in the other services – I knew better than to offer an explanation like the one Brennan and Napolitano put so much emphasis on, as if it were the main thing to know about a situation. It can’t help coming off as inviting sympathy (or averting blame), to dwell on features of the system as a mechanism the human actors were caught in. The Leadership 101 prescription is to change basic systemic assumptions that are inhibiting human judgment, or sending it in the wrong direction. That’s what you talk about. You acknowledge that the problem was those core assumptions; but having figured that out is old news by the time you say it. Talk about what you’re responsible for doing.
Brennan and Napolitano looked on Thursday like low-ranking subordinates who didn’t realize that they have the power and the responsibility to change the system’s assumptions, so that we get a better result. I remember the number of occasions when abashed subordinates explained in great detail how a problem had occurred, and then earnestly promised to be more diligent, proactive, supervisory, etc to keep it from happening again – when it was obvious to me, and very likely to the chief or the department head, that there was a systemic shortfall to be addressed. Young sailors didn’t always see that, although they usually understood immediately if someone with a broader view of the situation explained it. They were typically just more intent on conveying their bona fides than on analysis of systemic problems.
It is nothing short of alarming to see our highest national officials offering earnest explanations to the people, with no apparent appreciation of the responsible view – the executive view – that is evident to virtually everyone else: that we can’t keep potential terrorists off airplanes if we don’t, well, keep potential terrorists off airplanes. With young Nigerian males who have strong associations to any group whose name starts “Al Qaeda,” and whose fathers have warned US authorities that they are radicalized and intend to attack Americans, the a priori presumption should be against letting them on commercial airliners.
We, the American people, should never have to hear the words “aspirational” and “operational” again. Quite obviously, the associates of the groups we deem to be aspirational can make bombing attempts just like the associates of operational ones. Making this distinction a core assumption of our system is producing the wrong result. Stop explaining it, and just fix it.