President Bush put in place a network of counter-terror policies and institutions that gathered sufficient intelligences to stop Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and underwear-bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But it was Obama administration officials who botched the follow-through by failing to act.
Take the case of Hasan, who murdered 13 colleagues on Nov. 4. The U.S. knew the Army officer was sending email’s to Yemen’s Anwar al Awlaki, one of al Qaeda’s most effective Internet recruiters of terrorists and an advocate of killing Americans.
It intercepted the emails under Bush’s terrorist surveillance program that greatly increased eavesdropping on communications between people in this country and Islamic militants. The program was secret until exposed by the New York Times. Critics on the left accused Bush of wanting to listen in on the conservations of innocent Americans.
Hasan’s communications with Awlaki found their way to the National Joint Terrorism Task Force at FBI headquarters in Washington. Bush set up the national center in 2002, following the September 11 attacks, as a place for federal agencies to collect and share crucial information on terrorists.
But, instead of launching an investigation into Hasan or having his military superiors question his links to an al Qaeda firebrand, the information lay dormant.
Next, take the case of Christmas Day bomber Abdulmutallab, who ignited, but failed to detonate, homemade plastic explosives hidden in his clothing on Northwest Flight 253.
The Nigerian, who traveled to Yemen to learn a saboteur’s art, made enough terror contacts that he showed up on the U.S.’s main watch list, called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), created in 2004.
The list of some 500,000 names is maintained by the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), another Bush, post-9-11 creation.
Then came the human error, over which Bush, who left office a year ago, has no control.
Derogatory information on Abdulmutallab continued to flow into the NCTC. The State Department nominated him for a list of more determined terrorists (Terrorist Screening Database), but analysts said no. Personnel at the NCTC and CIA failed to search all databases that would have turned up more bad information about Abdulmutallab. In other words, the systems were in place to stop him if used properly. Being on the TSD list can lead to being placed on a no-fly list, which would have kept him off the plane.
After his father expressed concern his son had become dangerous, the State Department checked the visa list, but did not find his name, so assumed he had no visa to enter the U.S. The catch: officials entered the wrong spelling. The right spelling could have triggered alarm bells up and down the counter-terrorism infrastructure because the young radicalized Muslim did have a visa and was planning a Christmas Day trip to Detroit.
In all, Bush-era creations — the terrorist intercept program, the national terrorism center, the TIDE listing, data bases on individuals and the NCTC — had the information they needed to stop attacks. Obama-era humans failed to act.
The White House first response to the Christmas Day attack was to blame Bush.
"We are winding down a war in Iraq that took our eye off of the terrorists that attacked us, and have dramatically increased our resources in Afghanistan and Pakistan where those terrorists are," said spokesman Bill Burton.
But last week, as the administration released a scathing self-criticism of failing to connect the dots, the Bush-bashing receded.
John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, said the post-9-11 structures produced the needed data.
"Our review found the intelligence agencies and analysts had the information they needed," he told reporters January 7. "No agency or individual was denied access to that information … It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we had."
James Jay Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said Bush-era analysts helped stop several planned terror attacks, such as the London airline hijacking. But today, there is not the same counter-terror urgency inside the Obama bureaucracy.
"You build a tool kit, but if you don’t have a carpenter you can’t build a house," Carafano told HUMAN EVENTS. "So then the question is: Why aren’t the analysts doing their job? It’s leadership. If people aren’t pressing you to move forward on these things then nothing happens."
He added, "Looking back at 2006 when we broke up the London-based liquid bomber plot. Much, much more sophisticated. Many of the same kinds of clues were there. And in 2006 we put it all together and took these guys down. In 2009, we fail. It’s the same system. The only thing that changes is you have a different leadership team."
Carafano said one flaw in the organizational structure is the collection point. The NCTC, within the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the FBI, provide the intelligence to customers, such as Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, so they can block travelers and deny visas.
"If you have a DNI that is not very aggressive, the customers can sit there and they can demand all day long but they don’t get anything," he said. "It wasn’t so much a problem in the Bush Administration because you had leadership from the top kind of saying, ‘get this stuff out to the customer’ …. In this situation, you don’t have that. You just have the system cruising along."
The contrast is also evident in comparing the cases of two would-be airline saboteurs, shoe-bomber Richard Reid in 2001, and Abdulmutallab Dec. 25.
Al Qaeda recruited Reid from a radical London mosque, brought him to Afghanistan for bomb training, sent him through Europe to test security systems and then put him on a Miami-bound flight from Paris. Yet, U.S. intelligence knew little about him.
Eight years later, Abdulmutallab also received al Qaeda training, this time in Yemen, and moved through Europe. By the time he boarded the flight to Detroit from Amsterdam, the U.S. had collected a good deal of information. In other words, the intelligence collection system put in place under Bush was much improved—and it worked.
For his part, the White House’s Brennan knows he and his staff failed.
"I told the president today I let him down," he said. "I am the President’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism. And I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team."