Open Letter to President Obama on His Leadership Regarding the Christmas Day Plot

By Janice Kephart on January 6, 2010

Dear Mr. President,

As an American and former counsel to the 9/11 Commission familiar with substantial failings of our government to foil the September 11 terrorist attack, I am concerned about the tenor of your comments of January 5, 2010. You point to "substantial failings" of the intelligence community who held "sufficient information" yet "did not connect the dots," an outcome you find "unacceptable and I will not tolerate."

There is no doubt the intelligence and border community failed to do its job adequately in permitting 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to keep his visa and then board two planes in foreign countries where both intelligence and physical evidence should have created a "no board" situation. However, I am concerned that your statements are not helpful for two reasons:

1. You have yet to put forward an operational strategy to solve these failings. It has been 12 days since the attack, Mr. Abdulmutallab has been interrogated, and the various government elements responsible investigated. You have seen all the intelligence and know exactly where things went wrong. You do not need to rearrange a bureaucracy, but rather make sure the dots are better connected. Many things can be done, now, yet you continue to review without action.

In contrast, the British Home Secretary Alan Johnson had the blessing of his Prime Minister yesterday to address Parliament and discuss very specific strategies to deal with aviation security issues arising from terrorism. The event did not even occur in the UK, yet they are already making sure they are securing their country. On the other hand, our Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has showed herself to be so unknowledgeable about intelligence and the definition of "the system" that she has been silenced. That may be a good strategy, but where there is a void, you must fill it as our President with an operational way forward. Many of the answers are not hard -- they are processes, procedures, and technology alongside some agency turf that needs sorting. Please do so.

2. You say there were "substantial failings" of the intelligence community. There are four main problems here:

First, you refuse to include the border-security community in your discussion. Perhaps that is because your administration has spent the year assuring the American people that our borders are secure enough to now move towards amnesty. Perhaps that is also because you are in a conundrum over border issues and security because your Homeland Security Secretary has spent an inordinate amount of time this past year trying to repeal the REAL ID driver's license identity law that helps TSA assure that only legitimate travelers are attempting to board domestic flights. Thankfully she failed, but we are now in the position of being years away from more secure domestic aviation, simply because she refused to take on her duty to uphold the law, and instead tried to drive it into the ground.

Second, the failings were not themselves substantial. A solid review of the situation -- which you have ordered -- shows that the failings were small, with large ramifications. They included bad technologies, confused decision authority, decision authority given to those without the expertise, and those with the expertise not accepting the authority or not given the authority to use it, and a series of watchlists not being used robustly enough. There are even 9/11 Commission recommendations still not in place that could have substantially helped analysts do the right thing in this case. Stating that there were "substantial failings" matters for a number of reasons: (1) it isn't an accurate statement; (2) you are indicating to the world that our intelligence community is incompetent; which in turn, (3) keeps terrorists emboldened as to what they can get away with, and thus (4) demoralizes our intelligence officers who are a relatively finite, highly trained, trusted, and expensive element of our bureaucracy. Demeaning our intelligence cadre once more (this is your second investigation into their activities since you took office) does not help you as their leader, nor as our Commander in Chief. Further, we know that our intelligence community is not incompetent. We know that there have been dozens of terror attempts that have been thwarted since Richard Reid's similar operation shortly after 9/11. These attempts could not have been stopped without intelligence and law enforcement working hard to succeed.

Third and equally disturbing is your statement that you "will not tolerate" such failings again. Nothing is ever foolproof. These failings indeed did have immense ramifications. However, we are not likely again to have a known and respected family member physically seek out a CIA station chief to warn us of his son's wayward leanings. That system, as we make it stronger, is never 100 percent foolproof, and by setting the bar at "no tolerance," you are essentially setting our nation up to fail by viewing the situation too narrowly and too sternly. You are no longer a professor who can fail his students. They are the only students you have now, and if they fail, we all do.

Last, as our President we need a way forward that adapts to Al Qaeda's lessons learned on terrorist travel. They moved forward from 9/11 with adjusted travel operations that repeatedly include using the travel itself as a weapon. This requires us to leverage our most robust capabilities alongside international relationships that assure security, privacy, and legitimate travel facilitation. This is far beyond intelligence failings; this is our border community supported by the intelligence community and reinforced by relationships all over the world. Until you embrace this larger policy backdrop, the fix will be narrowly drawn to the facts of the Christmas plot and all Al Qaeda will need to do is find the other vulnerabilities we still have yet to close.


Janice Kephart
National Security Policy Director
Center for Immigration Studies