If you have not read Senator Susan Collins’ speech at AEI on the lessons from the Christmas Day bombing attempt, I recommend that you do so.
Senator Collins describes the security failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a plane and almost blow it up over Detroit—the failure of the airport screening system to detect his explosives, the failure of our government to act on information provided by his father, who alerted us to his son’s Islamist extremists connections in Yemen. “Despite all this information, the system failed to prevent Abdulmutallab from boarding Flight 253,” Collins says. The incident shows “how small vulnerabilities within our defense systems can be pinpointed and exploited” and “the relentless capacity of our enemy to find and exploit any security gap.” And she recommends steps that can be taken to ensure another terrorist does not succeed in exploiting these vulnerabilities.
She is right on target. However, I would argue that the biggest intelligence failure in this case—one that has been acknowledged by the Obama administration—was our failure to see that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has the intent or capability of striking us here in the American homeland.
Why did we not connect the dots and see the threat? Because we are no longer capturing and interrogating the senior al Qaeda leaders who could have provided us with this information.
The Washington Post recently reported on its front page that there has not been one single high-value detention by the United States since President Obama took office. Not one. Why is this dangerous? In my book, Courting Disaster, former CIA Director Mike Hayden explains that intelligence is like trying to put together a 1,000-piece puzzle. You have all the pieces laid out on the table in front of you, and you have to fit them together—except for one small problem: you are not allowed to see the picture on the cover of the box.
The only way to get a look at the picture on the cover of the box is to capture the people who know what the picture looks like—the KSMs of the world who drew the picture in the first place. When we capture and interrogate a senior al Qaeda leader like KSM, he gives us more than additional pieces of the puzzle—he can tell our intelligence community how the pieces we already have fit together. He can tell us what the final picture looks like.
This is information that cannot be obtained anywhere else. And we are not collecting it today.
As Senator Collins ably explains, in the case of the Christmas Day attack we had all the pieces we needed to put together the puzzle and stop the attack. What we did not have, however, was the picture on the cover of the box. And that—more than any other factor—is why we failed to connect the dots on Christmas Day.