"Eight years on, and there's no end in sight" – that was the assessment from one frustrated senior counterterrorism official I spoke to today about the aftermath of the attempted airliner bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas day.
He meant not only the terror threats, but the problems that the post-9/11 intelligence world was supposed to have fixed – information trapped in individual bureaucratic fiefdoms, including the red flags about Abdulmutallab that should have landed him on a no-fly list, but didn't.
And the worst thing for him about the attempted Christmas attack? They knew it was coming.
"We knew al Qaeda was promising a Christmas surprise," the official explained. "We'd been tracking this stuff for months, without being able to connect the dots of what was happening" and where it was going to happen.
He said there was mention of "the surprise" in al Qaeda communications intercepted in Europe, and even in material confiscated from suspect Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-born Colorado man accused in a plot to detonate explosives in the U.S.
The problem is that the National Counterterrorism Center gets 8,000 messages a day, the source said, but intelligence officials couldn't determine what was credible.
He said one theory they are working with is that "al Qaeda was still in the planning stages," but jumped the gun with and put Abdulmutallab into play as retaliation over recent U.S. airstrikes in Yemen and action by the Yemeni government against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) this fall. Abdulmutallab's ticket was bought a day before Yemen's reported Dec. 17 air strike against an AQAP target, but Yemen had been stepping up counterterrorist operations against AQAP since September.
"We think this operation was premature," he said, "that al Qaeda pushed this guy out, without all their usual planning in place and training done, which is likely why it failed."
As to why Abdulmutallab wasn't on a no-fly list, even though his father had reported his radicalization, and he'd been turned down for a British visa, the official said that's because the information still isn't getting to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment or TIDE list.
The TIDE issue has become a "he said, she said "among various government agencies. My colleague Marc Ambinder reported that, according to one of his sources, the State Department thought NCTC was checking visas against the TIDE list, and NCTC thought that State was doing the checking.
"You'd be shocked how many times we still come up with this, 'Gee I thought you were doing it,'" my source added. "Initially, our reports were that he was on no-fly list. Obviously that was wrong. This is clearly a failure of the system."
For instance, he asks rhetorically, "Why – if he was denied British visa – why wasn't that shared with us? I don't know."
He added, "There is still a tremendous reluctance to push that stuff out. There is still no sense of urgency in the intel community on this."
And the TIDE list itself is "haphazard," he said. "Sometimes, we have a name and a birth date, sometimes a whole file. There's a half-million names, a lot of it is double or triple reporting," because Persian or Arabic names are transliterated several different ways into English – Mohamed could be spelled Mohammed or Muhamad.
And the NCTC doesn't have the staff to check it. Worse, TIDE is about to take a major hit. Budget cuts to the 2010 intelligence budget mean the NCTC is losing up to $30 million of its annual budget, so "they're letting go a hundred contractors right now," the source said. Their job? Maintaining that TIDE database.
Meanwhile, the enemy is getting smarter, the senior counter-terror official said.
"Abdulmutallab is a case-in-point of how smart our enemy is. It's becoming more and more that you can't profile anymore. … We were looking for any Arab Muslim man between 21 and 40, but al Qaeda knows that as well, so they're actively recruiting folks outside that spectrum," he said. "They watch everything we do. They really do study us to see what we're looking for."
And it seems that "they" are very effectively sharing that intelligence.