Leading article: Bad intelligence

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After September 11, 2001, the US carried out a sweeping re-organisation of the intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies that failed to prevent the attacks on New York and Washington. The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines plane by a young Nigerian student that came within an ace of killing 300 people leaves no doubt that this re-organisation too has failed.

The similarities between 9/11 and what Americans are likely in future to call 12/25 are depressing. Once again ample clues were available. Once again government security agencies failed to treat the evidence as seriously as it deserved, and once again these agencies failed to pool the different information they had received to, as the jargon has it, "connect the dots". In this case, the dots were as large as footballs: a specific warning from the father of suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab delivered to the CIA about the extremist proclivities of his son, weeks before the event, and even more recent "chatter" picked up by US eavesdropping in Yemen about "a Nigerian" who had been trained for an attack. Had these two pieces been put together, Mr Abdulmutallab would never have been permitted to board Flight 253.

President Obama has every right to be furious about the "systemic and human" failure that led to near-catastrophe. The finger of guilt will most probably be pointed at the CIA, the biggest culprit in the 9/11 breakdown, which this time, having learnt first hand of the father's concerns, apparently kept that information to itself.

But the shortcomings extend further. The post-2001 restructuring took away the CIA's primacy among US intelligence agencies, subordinating it to a new Directorate of National Intelligence, in charge of a National Counter-Intelligence Center where the dots supposedly would be connected. But this re-ordering of the bureaucracy has not been able to overcome the old defects. There still seems to be no mechanism whereby pertinent information is automatically pooled. Entrenched rivalries between agencies persist, while intelligence sharing between countries – though better than eight years ago – is still not as complete as it should be. Until these faults are corrected, the system will remain frighteningly vulnerable.

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