Intelligence Agencies Reel From Attempted Christmas Attack

It's been a rough couple of weeks for U.S. spy agencies. First came the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day. President Obama says the incident was preventable, but the intelligence community failed to connect the dots. Guest host Mary Louise Kelly talks to Paul Pillar, a former CIA deputy chief.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly sitting in for Scott Simon.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was in a Detroit courtroom yesterday. He pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, while all week we've heard about the failure of U.S. spy agencies to stop Abdulmutallab from ever setting foot on Northwest Flight 253.

President Barack Obama says the U.S. government had all the information it needed but it failed to connect the dots. And the president has ordered changes designed to fix the system. Not everyone is optimistic.

Professor PAUL PILLAR (Georgetown University): We've heard all this before. We heard it after 9/11; we heard it after the last round of fixes to intelligence with the big reorganization five years ago.

KELLY: That's Paul Pillar, a former top official at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. And he points to all the post-9/11 reforms - new agencies that were created to connect the dots. But Pillar says the answer doesn't lie in tweaking the bureaucracy.

Prof. PILLAR: The inherent challenges of trying to find those terrorist needles in the haystack of information that flows in every day to the intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security is always going to be with us no matter how much we try to fix the machinery.

KELLY: As you know, the CIA argued pretty forcefully against these reforms, against creating all of these new centers, saying it's going to mess it up, you're going to have too much bureaucracy, you're going to separate the analysts from the spies who collect intelligence. Do you hear from your former colleagues? Are they yelling now, we told you so?

Prof. PILLAR: I hear from that and I share some of that opinion. I believe that the reorganization of five years ago, if it had any effect at all, probably did make things a little bit worse. Remember what we were hearing after 9/11 -again, the connecting dots business, the information sharing business, information not flowing smoothly enough across bureaucratic lines. So what did we do in the reorganization? We created some new bureaucratic lines. Two more stovepipes basically. And I think that's part of what we're seeing in the most recent instance.

KELLY: One other thing that jumped out at me this week that I thought was interesting from the White House review, your former colleague, John Brennan, who's now the president's top counterterrorism advisor, he was asked what surprised him most as he's gone through and tried to sort through the attempted attack on Christmas Day. And he said what surprised him most was the al-Qaida branch based out of Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, how lethal they've become, that U.S. intelligence knew they had aspirations of attacking the U.S. mainland, didn't know they were at the point of actually doing it. Did you find that surprising as well?

Prof. PILLAR: Well, let me try to rephrase what I think John Brennan was saying, and that was, number one, the strategic picture was there, that what we now know as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a group definitely worth worrying about, one that is concerned not only with events in Yemen and Saudi Arabia but does also share the transnational aspirations of al-Qaida Central, which makes it a danger to the United States.

But when you get to the point of a specific operation - in this case unleashing a Nigerian to do something against the United States - then you have moved from strategy to tactics. Strategically, I think we've had a pretty good sense of things, and overall that's what John Brennan was saying this week. When you get to the tactical operations, trying to get those fragments of information that are actionable and would allow us to roll up a particular plot, that is far more difficult.

KELLY: Is that a fixable challenge?

Prof. PILLAR: One can find ways to deal with that ultimately intractable problem through information technology, through analytic training - all the things we've been trying to do for years - but ultimately it is not something that can be fixed. Ultimately it is an inherent challenge that will face counterterrorist officials today and tomorrow and next year and beyond. And it is because of that inherent intractable challenge, we will, despite all our efforts to fix things, still have incidents like the one we had Christmas Day.

KELLY: Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and now a professor at Georgetown University, thank you very much.

Prof. PILLAR: You're quite welcome.

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