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No one connected the dots on terror plot

By Frances Townsend, CNN Contributor
  • Former National Security Adviser Frances Townsend: It's crucial to review what went wrong
  • She says agencies failed to put together intelligence that pointed to plot to blow up plane
  • Americans and intelligence community can't afford to be complacent, she says

Editor's note: Frances Fragos Townsend, a CNN contributor on national security issues, served as President George W. Bush's chief anti-terrorism and homeland security adviser. Townsend is a partner in the law firm of Baker Botts LLP and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

(CNN) -- We are now five days away from the attempted terrorist attack to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit, Michigan. We are learning more each day about the multiple failures in our security and intelligence system that preceded that attack.

It is worth discussing the most egregious thus far and the way forward to building a better system.

The facts suggest that an al Qaeda plot was hatched in Yemen and involved the same radical cleric who communicated with the man accused in the Fort Hood shootings before the deaths of 13 U.S. soldiers. And the attempt to blow up a U.S. plane on Christmas Day used a bomb technique similar to the one to that was used in August to try to assassinate the chief of Saudi Arabia's counterterror police.

Having survived this assassination attempt, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef flew to Washington, where he personally briefed U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and national security officials both about the assassination attempt and on his concerns about the growing terrorism problem in Yemen.

The CIA passed some information about Flight 253 suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab to the federal interagency channel, but they appear not to have passed along all the relevant information that they may have possessed. The National Counterterrorism Center, which was created post-9/11 to "connect the dots," failed to do that and to ask the intelligence community for additional dots.

Furthermore, we understand that there was an intercept of Yemeni cleric Anwar Al Aulaqi advocating al Qaeda's use of Nigerians as operatives, but this was never put together with the information about AbdulMutallab.

Al Aulaqi is the radical cleric who was in contact with suspect Nidal Hasan before the November 5 shooting of 13 U.S. soldiers at Fort Hood, but it appears that no one connected those dots either. Our British allies revoked AbdulMutallab's British visa for fraud because he lied on his visa application, but they did not inform the U.S. because it was, in their judgment, not related to a national security issue.

As President Obama said, there are both systemic and individual failures here.

The president is understandably frustrated and under pressure to act. AbdulMutallab should not have been able to get high explosives on a plane, the watch list system should have prevented him from boarding the plane at all, and the U.S. intelligence community writ large should have been able to collect, analyze and disseminate critical intelligence.

We will never encourage the risk-taking and creativity necessary to fix these problems if we indulge in the usual Washington bloodsport of the blame game. I have conducted more than my share of reviews, from the Silberman-Robb WMD Commission recommendations to the Katrina lessons learned.

Obama needs people outside those directly responsible to look at what happened and provide him with an objective view. He now has the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (of which I was formerly a member), which can undertake such a review.

It has been more than eight years since the tragedy of September 11. While we all wish we could forget the pain of that tragedy, our enemies relish remembering it and planning for what they hope will be their next success.

We need to confront the growing sense of complacency in the bureaucracy and among the American people. We can only prevent a repeated success for the terrorists if the American people get the facts and the solutions to fix the problems that this incident has brought to light.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frances Townsend.