The Corner

Flight 253: The Role of CIA Bureaucracy

The Northwest Flight 253 bombing incident on Christmas Day is yet another indication of the need for intelligence reform, reform that can protect Americans and our allies.

According to CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano, the bomber’s father walked into the American embassy in Nigeria in November and advised embassy officials that his son was a terrorist threat.

“We did not have his name before then,” Gimigliano told journalists. With more than 90 percent of CIA officers living and working entirely within the United States, and most of the remainder stationed within American embassies overseas, traditional on-the-streets intelligence gathering is rare. We weren’t out there looking for this terrorist intelligence, it was just good luck that the information came walking into an embassy.

Sometimes good intelligence does come from walk-ins, and the challenge then becomes to process it efficiently. Security at American embassies is tight, and lots of visa-seekers, scam artists, and crazies request meetings with American embassy officials, so it can be difficult for a genuine intelligence volunteer to actually get in the door. History is filled with examples of people with valuable secrets who just couldn’t get into the embassy to tell them. The bomber’s father is apparently a former Nigerian government official, and chairman of a Nigerian bank, whose credentials would have given him the ability to speak directly to an American official.

Once he got inside, the bomber’s father likely met with a newly trained CIA officer who did not have the clout to get the information out fast. Meeting with walk-ins is considered low-level work. The officer would have typed up the information and relayed it to his superiors within the embassy. Depending on the number of management layers, he may have had to get the approval of just one or two, but possibly as many as four to six managers before the information was released and sent to CIA headquarters. The time it takes to do this is significant because the bomber’s father walked into the embassy in November and the attack occurred on December 25th — a nanosecond in the way government perceives the passage of time.

The information’s destination within CIA headquarters is a matter of art and magic. Nigeria is in the CIA’s Africa division, but counterterrorism is in another division. The bomber’s last address was London, in a separate division, and he had recently been in Dubai, yet another division. Each division has countless branches, chiefs, and deputy chiefs. Despite many years of CIA service, I do not know where the information would have gone or who would have been in charge. CIA officers can spend years at headquarters studying the unceasing intrigue of its internal relationships.

Ultimately, there are simply so many managers and administrators, in so many separate and loosely organized chains of command, that acquiring the intelligence is a stroke of luck, and getting it to where it needs to go, on time, is almost impossible.

To solve this, we need to get CIA officers out of the United States and into foreign countries, get them out of the embassies and on the streets, account for the money, and eliminate byzantine bureaucratic structures. In doing so, we will protect Americans and our allies, so that we can go about our lives in peace.

– “Ishmael Jones” is a former deep-cover officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, published last year by Encounter Books.

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