The U.S. has suffered three terrorist attacks over the last three months: the Fort Hood shootings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the failed Christmas Day bombing by the so-called Underwear Bomber, and the assassination by suicide bombing of seven high-ranking American intelligence officials by a Jordanian double agent in Khost. President Obama described the Underwear Bomber's attempt as a "potential catastrophic breach of security" caused by a failure to "connect the dots."
Hindsight is always 20/20, but the President insists on assigning specific responsibility for tracking down leads, distributing intelligence data more widely, improving the "analytical process" and changing the criteria for inclusion on the various terrorist watch lists, which is what most needs to be done to protect American lives. He says that while 9/11 represented a failure to collect the dots, the attempted Christmas Day bombing was caused by a failure to connect the dots.
Too much credit is given to the creativity and cunning fueled by evil intentions. In fact, just as there are only so many ways to rob a bank or steal someone's identity, there are only so many ways to launch a terrorist attack. While much is made of the seemingly unending imagination of al Qaeda, anyone familiar with the 9/11 report or with bin Laden himself could tell you that al Qaeda has been using Yemen as an outpost for recruiting and training suicide bombers since before the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Any threats of imminent attack emanating from Yemen should be taken seriously.
And anyone familiar with the evolution of the Colombian drug trade could tell you that drug mules were concealing cocaine-stuffed condoms in their underwear in the late 1970s, until they realized swallowing those condoms was a more efficient -- albeit often deadlier -- method of concealment. What will the TSA do when suicide bombers catch up to Colombian drug lords in their ability to even more creatively hide contraband? Require the ingestion of laxatives by anyone on the No Fly List?
It is all well and good to criticize the State Department official who failed to spell Abdulmutallab's name correctly, but it is even more important to review the embassy official's interpretation of how credible Abdulmutallab's father's warning was that his own son was involved with bad people in Yemen and was contemplating doing bad things against America. Regardless of how long it did or didn't take to transfer Abdulmutallab's name from one list to another, it would have taken one simple phone call from Nigeria to Langley or the Pentagon to warn law enforcement officials that some kid named Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab was in Yemen and should be watched and stopped.
The President and his staff are failing to acknowledge the critical role played by the living and breathing component of "human intelligence." The people collecting and connecting the dots have to be experienced, trained and capable of exercising lightning-quick judgment. The solution to improving our intelligence gathering in the war against terror is not just making sure it is done more systematically or by installing Google-type software in U.S. databases as National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair suggested in his recent testimony before Congress, but in making sure the people performing these tasks have the real investigative experience necessary to understand the meaning and nuances of the data they are analyzing and the life experience to know what matters. Otherwise, the implementation of super sophisticated meta-data analytic software now used to trawl the Internet would be enough to keep America safe regardless of who was collecting the dots.
When it comes to investigating crime in all its various dimensions, everything old is new again. With experience comes knowledge, and sooner or later an experienced investigator has seen it all and knows what a criminal or terrorist is going to do before he knows it himself. Not only do people use the same methods to perpetrate bad acts, but the same perpetrators show up repeatedly doing the same things, only slightly better or using a different name or in a different place.
There is no democracy in the world of fact-finding and analysis. Knowing how much weight to give information or where something fits is often more important than collecting data quickly and disseminating it widely. A seasoned professional knows not only what is true but what matters most and where to look next. Experience and judgment will trump the algorithms used by artificial intelligence software every time.
Hopefully, while the NCTC is installing Google search software, it and the other agencies responsible for fighting this war against terror will focus on making sure the people tasked with connecting the dots have the talent, experience and acumen necessary for the job as well as improved technology -- because it's never just about the dots.
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