The Cable

Pants bomber: State Department to beef up reporting on terror risks

The State Department is planning to significantly increase the amount of information in its now-famous Visas VIPER cables as part of the impending administration review on the security failures surrounding underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a State Department official tells The Cable.

All departments are required to submit their recommendations to the White House Thursday and the administration is expected to collate the information over the weekend to present to President Obama when he gets back to town, although some conclusions are already leaking out.

But from State's perspective, the key issue remains its handling of information given to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria by Abdulmutallab's father, information that was passed on to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in Washington but not linked up with other data that might have kept the disgruntled plotter off the plane to Detroit.

Foggy Bottom seems to be digging into its argument, made by spokesman Ian Kelly on Monday, that State fulfilled its role by passing on the basic information and that it was the NCTC's responsibility to go back and check the database and connect the dots.

"The way the system works now, we rely on the counterterrorism folks to get the cable and go into the database," the official said. "It may have been a presumption on a lot of people's part to gather that the NCTC would actually do that."

So, the fix State is proposing is to include in the VIPER cables from now on "any information that the State Department would have under its purview," the official explained, as to "not rely on someone at NCTC to go into the database and look up the information."

The official acknowledged that too much information could also pose a risk of being counterproductive. But the VIPER cable on Abdulmutallab only had basic info, his short bio and one line stating that his father had some concerns about the would-be attacker. An explicit mention that Abdulmutallab had obtained a visa to travel to the United States would have been helpful.

Whether or not that argument will keep State off the hook is another matter, as the blame game over who is culpable for the security breach heats up. Suffice to say there is plenty of blame to go around.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been leading the State Department's role in the review from her home in Chappaqua, the official said, while Deputy Secretary Jack Lew has been manning the shop here in Washington. Lew and Undersecreatary for Management Patrick Kennedy have participated interagency meetings on Clinton's behalf.

Other State Department officials critical to the review include State Department Counselor Cheryl Mills, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs, State's coordinator for counterterrorism Dan Benjamin, and the folks in the bureau for Diplomatic Security. Jacobs has been in on the briefings on Capitol Hill.

Despite a lot of bilateral contact over the incident with countries such as Yemen, Nigeria, Netherlands, and the UK, Clinton has been focused on internal issues and plans to turn to diplomatic engagement in a more formal way as early as next week, the official said.

"The secretary has been getting regular updates from senior staff here [at the State Department] and is leading the effort to respond to the president's directive to review all of our processes," said Kelly, when contacted for a comment on the review.

The Cable

About those "systemic failures" ...

Since President Obama has now come out and blamed the security breach that resulted in a near successful attack by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on "systemic failures," the question becomes: How do we go about fixing that?

For some answers, The Cable turned to Jim Locher, the president and CEO of the Project on National Security Reform, a nongovernmental organization with ties to National Security Advisor Jim Jones that has been sounding the alarm about America's dysfunctional national security infrastructure for years.

"While President Obama said there were systemic failures, our problem has been that we haven't done systemic reform," said Locher. "We've had lots of reforms in the past but they've been marginal adjustments, ad hoc in nature."

"Here we're seeing play out that lack of integration, that lack of cooperation, that lack of collaboration."

Information sharing across the intelligence agencies is just not occurring to the degree necessary, as evidenced by early reports on the Obama administration's forthcoming review of the incident, which point the finger somewhat at the CIA and the Office of the Director for National Intelligence.

Some of the problem is cultural. For years the mantra has been to move from a "need to know" to a "need to share" mentality, but many in the intelligence community still operate from a risk-avoidance perspective. The fact that the CIA had information from Abdulmutallab's father that it failed to pass on is suggestive of that. In the past, the CIA has been criticized for privileging the protection of its sources and methods over sharing intelligence with other agencies.

But on a bureaucratic level, the reforms that Congress has passed have fallen short and succumbed somewhat to the struggles between the actors, Locher said. Meanwhile the Obama administration, which has yet to come out with a National Security Strategy, hasn't matched its rhetoric with results.

"The Obama administration came in and has been talking about collaboration across the national security system, they've talked the need for integrated effort, for the need to make use of all the instruments of national power and influence, but that's not been translated into action," Locher said.

There aren't incentives for people in the system to get on board with cooperation. Interagency mechanisms have been slow to materialize and where they do exist there is confusion over roles and authorities, he added.

Prime examples are the recent conflict between CIA and ODNI over responsibilities, as detailed in this LA Times piece, as well as longstanding conflict between the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center (State sought to shift blame this week to NCTC).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Locher is calling for more authority over missions and budgets for the ODNI, which is headed by his ally Adm. Dennis Blair. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which created ODNI, made too many compromises and created confusion as a result, he said.

Overall, the underwear bomber incident "just proves why national security reform is so important," Locher said.

Unfortunately, PNSR's work on the issue was significantly complicated this month, when House Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairman John Murtha, D-PA, moved to completely defund the organization in a move to protect his own bureaucratic turf.