Were There Enough Dots To Connect?

Kevin Drum takes a look at some recent reports and wonders if there was really enough intelligence to “connect the dots” and prevent the aborted Christmas bombing prior to the attempt.

The Christmas bombing attempt might well turn out to be a serious intelligence failure. But the evidence so far suggests that the only red flags known to U.S. intelligence were (a) a walk-in warning of dubious value from Abdulmutallab’s father, (b) warnings that “a Nigerian” was planning an attack, (c) Abdulmutallab’s recent trip to Yemen, and (d) his lack of checked luggage. That’s not very much.

We should all keep an open mind on this. But the more facts that come out, the less it seems as if the intelligence failure was really that serious. There were only a few vague warnings in the system, not the panoply of blinking red alarms that we’ve been hearing about.

Of course, it’s impossible to know at the moment whether there was more information, but I think that Drum makes a good point here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we might not be able to be better at counterintelligence operations and gathered more information had things not been different. I don’t think that the government is completely free from blame here.

That said, the real question is: how can we improve our counter-terrorism operations so that we can better separate the wheat from the chaff going forward?

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism, ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Well as a start, when you get that ‘walk in warning’, perhaps an entry in the visa (if not revoked) that would call for more security screening. That in turn would lead to eyebrows being raised on the lack of luggage. Then a residue test might reveal a trace of the bomb.
    Drum would be more persuasive if you could imagine him making the same arguments if Bush or McCain was president.

  2. I was thinking about this, and the term that came to mind was “the fog of war.”

    Why on earth do people who believe in a “war on terror” believe that it can be executed with perfection? Was any war, ever?

    If, like me, you think this is more crime-like than war-like, you might have better expectations. You don’t expect the police to prevent every mall shooting, do you?

    Finally, consider the daily civilian casualties in a real war, like The Blitz. It makes today’s critics look like foolish grandstanders, or pansies.

  3. sam says:

    Drum would be more persuasive if you could imagine him making the same arguments if Bush or McCain was president.

    Don’t read Kevin much, do you? He’s probably one of the fairest voices blogging. The substance of his argument doesn’t depend on whether he’d have made it if the others were president, does it? Well I suppose it does if you think every argument is freighted with ideological baggage (which judging from your posts, plural, you do).

  4. Crust says:

    I’m curious why anonymous government sources leaked that he had bought a one-way ticket when he had in fact bought a return ticket. Infighting between different groups?

    I’m also curious about the general phenomenon as to why journalists don’t expose sources who continually give them bum information (of course it’s possible this was a one-off, innocent mistake on the part of a usually reliable source, but assuming that’s not the case). Journalists given false information should at least follow up with their readers to explain why they think that happened.

  5. Drew says:
  6. tom p says:

    If they just tortured everybody they came across, they would have had more dots than they could possibly connect… thereby answering the problem of not having enuf dots to connect…

  7. spencer says:

    and of course tom p is volunteering to be the first one tortured.