There seemed to be both a bureaucratic and an analytical “disconnect” in the posture communicated by the Obama administration yesterday on the Christmas airliner bombing. On the bureaucratic side, we heard a lot about processing intelligence faster and better, but nothing about executive accountability or improved criteria for the “no-fly list” except the promise of further review. Even more disquieting was the chief analytical point made both in the published White House report and in the oral comments of Obama’s officials: that our intelligence community had not realized the extent to which al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had graduated from an “aspirational” to an “operational” terrorist group.
Forget, for the moment, whether the intelligence community ought to have realized it. The more fundamental question is why keeping a traveler with known terrorist associations off a passenger jet should have been contingent on intelligence believing his specific group to have gone beyond the “aspirational” level. In the simplest analytical terms, the main way in which we figure out which groups have become operational, as opposed to aspirational, is seeing them mount attacks. Waiting on that level of proof, rather than acting earlier and on more general suspicion, is a very dangerous approach.
There is no indication from the White House, however, of an intention to change that approach. Our analytical delay in recognizing AQAP as operational is instead being offered as a central reason for the failure – as if there were no impetus to act, in a given situation, without such recognition. The nature of the threat should convince us otherwise, of course: terrorist activity will never be so distinctive and detectable that we can afford to dismiss as definitive the absence of indicators. We must acknowledge, moreover, that in Abdulmutallab’s case, there was no absence of indicators; rather, there was a ridiculously comprehensive list of indicators. Apparently the only thing missing was the intelligence community’s judgment that AQAP had become operational.
The lesson from Abdulmutallab’s bombing attempt is that our own criteria for action are creating a serious vulnerability for us. I am far less interested in which counterterrorism officials took vacation time after the Christmas Day attack than in the dangerous implications of this complacent security posture. This basic confusion about the urgency our suspicion ought to have – this, right here – is what needs to be corrected. If it is not, American lives will remain hostage to an overly bureaucratic approach to national security.