From his farm about ten miles south of Annapolis, R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, keeps a close eye on Washington, D.C. Fifteen years ago this month he told President Clinton that he’d be leaving Langley, but Woolsey, now 68, has hardly left the arena. Currently a partner in a Silicon Valley venture-capital fund that invests in renewable-energy companies, Woolsey has remained active in policy circles, serving on the Defense Policy Board and the National Commission on Terrorism. Now, as the intelligence community he once led is coming under fire for its handling of the foiled Christmas Day bomb plot on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, Woolsey spoke with National Review Online about what may have gone wrong and what President Obama can do to fix what has become an increasingly bureaucratic intelligence apparatus.
From the reports of how the CIA handled the information on Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the Nigerian would-be bomber, it seems clear that agency officials initially “did what they’re supposed to do,” Woolsey says. After Abdul Mutallab’s father alerted the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, intelligence officials “got together quickly and sent the information back to the agencies and the National Counterterrorism Center, which reports to the director of national intelligence. Then, it appears that somebody there made the judgment that they did not have enough derogatory information on Abdul Mutallab to put him on either the ‘recheck’ list or the ‘no fly’ list.”
What troubles Woolsey is that Abdul Mutallab’s name was left off the lists for political reasons. “Limiting the ‘no fly’ and ‘recheck’ lists has been a cause of the Left and libertarians for years,” he says. “You’ve got a bunch of people on the Hill and in the NGOs beating on them to have, say, not 5,000 names but only 3,000 names on the no-fly list. There’s a lot of pressure on the system from the Hill, and to some extent the public, to be very, very conservative about promoting anybody from the recheck list of 500,000 to the no-fly list of three or four thousand.”
But shouldn’t the intelligence community be apolitical in its recommendations and not worry about frustrating a congressman? “Well, just as the Supreme Court follows the election returns, you can bet that the bureaucracy does as well,” says Woolsey. “If lots of people are beating on them — whether in the Bush administration or in this administration — not to put people on the no-fly list, then that’s the way the bureaucracy is going to behave.”
“In the aftermath of this attempt to blow up a plane, you and I might think that the information about Abdul Mutallab ought to have been given very heavy weight, since it was his father who came in, and that’s a perfectly rational position,” says Woolsey. Still, he says, if you look at Flight 253 “from the perspective of December 24 instead of today,” you can see why the agencies were cautious of fighting an entrenched institutional culture that’s wary of adding names to the no-fly list. Another example of government policy crippling the fight against terrorism is “the ongoing release of terrorists, particularly Yemenis, who then plan and conduct more attacks against us.”
Speaking with Woolsey, one wonders if keeping mum is becoming the rule of thumb in American intelligence. “I’m not sure if it’s the mechanism that is screwed up or the fact that people have biased the system,” he says. The role of intelligence agencies, he adds, is not to make policy, but “to call it as they see it and present resulting tough questions to elected leaders who make the final national-security decisions.” In coming months and years, the intelligence community’s highlighting of these tough questions needs not just to be heard by the White House and Congress, but heeded. But for that to happen, there will have to be some serious rethinking by our elected officials. An epidemic of political correctness may also be part of the problem, says Woolsey. “I don’t think we should focus just on people from the Middle East, but generally speaking, we are talking about males in their late teens to 40 or so,” he says. “I don’t see any reason why one shouldn’t put young men under particularly rigorous scrutiny and double-check all of them. You really have to be an extremist with respect to political correctness to think you can’t treat young men differently from grandmothers.”