The Obama administration is taking heat for treating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the al-Qaeda operative who tried to blow Northwest Flight 253 out of the sky on Christmas day — like a common criminal. On Tuesday, Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat partly because his call for Abdulmutallab to be held in military custody resonated with Bay State voters. The next day, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress it was a mistake to read the underwear bomber his Miranda rights before letting intelligence officials interrogate him about other threats to the homeland.
But there’s an even more basic problem: The Christmas plot represents a colossal information-sharing failure. Because our intelligence agencies didn’t have an incentive to share the mounting clues that al-Qaeda was planning something big, we missed the chance to detect and disrupt a potentially catastrophic attack. Eight years after 9/11, the feds still haven’t figured out how to connect the dots.
On December 25, who knew what?
According to a New York Times report, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser knew from his counterpart in Saudi Arabia that al-Qaeda operatives were hiding bombs in their nether regions. The National Security Agency had intercepted communications suggesting that al-Qaeda intended to use an unnamed Nigerian to strike the U.S. around Christmas. It also knew that an “Umar Farouk” had volunteered for an attack.
Abdulmutallab’s father had warned the State Department and CIA about his son’s increasingly radical bent, and other intercepts revealed that Abdulmutallab had been in contact with Anwar al-Alwaki, a Yemen-based radical. (Al-Alwaki was last seen trading emails with Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army major who went on a jihadist shooting spree at Fort Hood in early November.) Finally, State knew that Abdulmutallab was the proud owner of a visa to travel to the U.S.
Yet the warning signs weren’t widely shared. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone to tell the FBI, the nation’s chief domestic intelligence agency. Nor did anyone inform Homeland Security, which maintains lists of terror suspects who are either barred from flying or who get a little extra screening before they’re allowed on a plane.
Why not? Why, after dozens of statutes, executive orders, academic papers, and op-eds extolling the virtues of information sharing, were our intelligence agencies still hoarding data?
Part of the reason is that it’s not in their interest to share. As I argue in a forthcoming law-review article, information sharing threatens two of the things intelligence agencies prize the most: influence and turf.
Intelligence agencies want to influence the White House. That doesn’t mean they’re out to manipulate the president into embracing any particular policy. But they do want him to rely on their judgment more than he relies on that of their rivals. The FBI wants the president to accept its assessment that a given Waziristan-based cell represents a grave threat to the national security, not CIA’s assessment that the cell isn’t much danger at all.
Agencies fear that sharing will cause their influence to wane. It’s basically a free-rider problem. If the FBI gives CIA a piece of data that turns out to be the silver bullet, CIA will get all the glory for the resulting intelligence breakthrough. Which agency is the president going to call the next time a crisis breaks out?
Intelligence agencies also want to protect their turf. They want to run their operations as they see fit, without interference from bureaucratic competitors.
Sharing makes that harder. Suppose CIA tells the FBI that it’s uncovered a North Korean mole at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The bureau might storm in and insist on prosecuting the spy immediately, preventing CIA from turning him into a double agent and using him to feed misinformation to Pyongyang.
The intelligence community isn’t going to start sharing information simply because Congress and the president say “please.” It’s not enough for our nation’s lawmakers to tear down the wall; intelligence agencies need to be given reasons to climb over the rubble.
So what should be done? For starters, policymakers could create favorable incentives by offering employees meaningful rewards. Those who share could be given promotions, plum jobs, and cash bounties. Besides the carrots, it wouldn’t hurt to have some sticks. Employees who persisted in hoarding could be sent to the bureaucratic equivalent of Siberia, demoted, or fired.
Next, reformers could insist on new employee-performance metrics. Intelligence officials could be evaluated in part based on their citation count — the extent to which others rely on their reports in their own work. Tying career prospects to citations would create powerful incentives to share; other analysts can’t cite your work if they don’t know it exists.
Policymakers also should pay attention to the incentives at the agency-wide level. In particular, they could craft compensation mechanisms by which sharing agencies could internalize some of the financial and other benefits that accrue to recipients. That way data exchange wouldn’t hurt their bottom lines.
As the war on terror approaches its second decade, solid intelligence will continue to be our first line of defense against al-Qaeda — and intelligence failures will continue to be our Achilles’ heel. Until policymakers recalibrate the incentives within the intelligence community, the need for better information sharing is a lesson we’ll be condemned to learn over and over again.
– Nathan A. Sales is a law professor at George Mason University. He served in the George W. Bush administration at the Justice Department and as deputy assistant secretary of homeland security for policy.