The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department’s top intelligence chief both called for common sense answers to questions of who is and isn’t added to terrorist watch lists.
Their comments came in response to criticism leveled at the spy community in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing plot.
The name of the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was reportedly in watch-list databases, but not the “no fly” list which would have prevented him from boarding the Detroit-bound flight.
Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said he had received a “fairly decent account” of what happened from former colleagues in the intelligence community. Everything the CIA had in its files was shared with the National Counterterrorism Center, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association biometrics conference.
“One of the side effects of increased sharing is that we have created a tsunami of information rushing at our analysts,” said Hayden, who is now a consultant with the Chertoff Group. The center adds 200 names to its watch lists every day, he added.
James Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said analysts are not “clairvoyant mind readers … We’re simply not going to bat .1000 all the time.”
“It’s not so much connecting dots, it’s the number of dots and their obscurity and their opaqueness,” Clapper said, but added that the “dot” cliche should be banned from the English language. “It’s much more abstract and less specific than it appears after the fact,” he said, answering those who have used 20/20 hindsight to make conclusions about the case.
The criteria for placing someone on a “no fly” list are very stringent, Clapper said. They are almost equivalent to what would pass muster in a court of law, he asserted. If names are added because of “wispy intelligence” then the lists will expand. Innocent travelers may have their rights infringed upon, he said.
The Defense Department has contributed 870 names to the list, and 70 of the suspects later attempted to board flights, but were denied, he said.
Hayden said the “broad political pressure” prior to the Christmas Day plot was to make it hard to get on the no fly list. Now, with the “hyperventilating” in the aftermath of the Christmas Day plot, that has come full circle.
“Getting on the no-fly list is a challenge,” Hayden said. Adding names that don’t belong there would be counterproductive.
“You can’t ignore the fact that [Abdulmutallab] boarded the aircraft with a weapon,” he said of the plot. Nevertheless, the incident “actually reflects the success of our endeavors. It was almost a Hail Mary pass on the part of al-Qaida.”
The terrorist group apparently sent a man with little training, and gave him an explosive device that had a low probability of success.
“Despite all those things, we were only one half jump behind him,” he said.“That should be taken as a metric on what our collective efforts have been able to do over the past eight years in terms of closing options to al-Qaida,” Hayden said.