The failed Christmas Day attempt to detonate a bomb on an airplane in Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has refocused national attention on the need for improved information sharing.   While it is clear that catastrophe was only narrowly averted, the review of the systemic failure also reveals how the attitude of intelligence agencies has changed since 9/11.

According to news reports:

Customs and Border Protection personnel based at the National Targeting Center in Washington came across the intelligence about Abdulmutallab — which was based on a tip from the suspect’s father to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria — during an in-depth review of the manifest after the plane was en route to Detroit, the other law enforcement officials said.

The problem has shifted from not sharing information across agencies to not sharing information and conducting analysis fast enough.   The State Department shared the tip with the CIA which shared it with Customs and Border Protection which compared it to the flight manifest.  The failure is no longer with a “culture of secrecy” as was the case before 9/11, but with technology and processes that are not able to provide information to decision makers in a timely manner.

According to the White House Security Review, “Information Technology within the CT community did not sufficiently enable the correlation of  data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information.”    This seems to include the fact that analysts did not search all available databases – something that could be made easier through identity management and federated queries – and that the systems were unable to match Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name in the database of current visa holders because of a spelling mismatch.   There is blame to go around and some of the blame should be shouldered by the consultants who helped design these systems.

One of my frequent complaints about public sector IT systems is that we  do not deploy systems quickly enough or iterate new releases often enough.   Here is an example of how the inadequacy of our tools could have resulted in disaster.