U.S. Spy Agencies Face Information Overload

Thursday, 07 Jan 2010 12:08 PM

 

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WASHINGTON – US intelligence officials, under pressure to better track terrorist threats, are hampered by their own vast bureaucracy and an overwhelming flow of information, analysts say.

President Barack Obama "has now discovered that he's inherited an intelligence community in the United States which is bloated, bureaucratic and even with the best of intentions has become so large it finds it very hard to put together the pieces," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, told AFP.

An angry Obama took the spy agencies to task this week after an attempt to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day was narrowly averted, saying the services overlooked key clues.

Although top security and military officials acknowledged failures and vowed to improve, making the 16 agencies with an army of 200,000 employees more efficient and nimble remained a daunting task, Riedel said.

News photos of Obama meeting a room full of top intelligence officials illustrated the problem, said Riedel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"There are two dozen people in that room. Why are that many people trying to run the show? Why doesn't he have an intelligence senior official who he goes to who is in charge of everything?" he said.

"In the intelligence business, bigger is not necessarily better."

Reforms introduced after the attacks of September 11, 2001 created a new director of national intelligence that was supposed to harness the bureaucracy but the position was never empowered with enough authority, Riedel said.

The botched handling of the attempted Christmas Day plot carried an "eerie echo" of failures prior to 9/11, said two former members of the commission that investigated the September 11 attacks.

"With its many jurisdictional boundaries and its persistent bureaucratic fault lines, our current system, although greatly improved since 9/11, affords too many opportunities to let information slip, too many occasions for human frailty to assert itself," Thomas Kean and John Farmer wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday.

The spy agencies now share information in a way they did not before 9/11 but still struggle to sort through a massive and growing array of data about potential terrorist plots and suspects, experts said.

"The problem is that the system is clogged with information," one former CIA officer told the Washington Post.

Huge numbers of names and details on possible suspects are overwhelming the agencies, said the officer. "Most of it isn't of interest, but people are afraid not to put it in."

The task is akin to a giant and confusing jigsaw puzzle, in which the Americans have only a fraction of the pieces needed, Riedel said.

"And every few minutes you get another piece, that may or may not be relevant to the puzzle you're working on."

Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, acknowledged the spy services' shortcomings after Obama's unusual public rebuke.

"The intelligence community received the president's message today -- we got it, and we are moving forward to meet the new challenges," Blair said in a statement on Tuesday.

The White House on Thursday planned to release an unclassified version of a report into failures relating to terrorist watch-lists, which was expected to pile more pressure on the embattled intelligence community.

The details of exactly how the spy services failed in the run-up to the Christmas Day plot remained unclear, but the agency charged with analyzing intelligence on terror threats -- the National Counter-Terrorism Center -- was expected to face tough questions.

The NCTC had the "responsibility to bring together all the bits and pieces and try to put them together," Riedel said.

"If any part of the US intelligence community is likely to come under more scrutiny, it's the NCTC."

© AFP 2014

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