Integration, Process Failures Blamed in Christmas Day Terrorist Attack

Loraine Lawson

A blog post on the Federal News Radio site raises an intriguing question about what role data integration-or the lack of it - played in the Christmas day attack on a Northwest Airlines flight.


The problem wasn't that federal agents didn't have information that would've raised red flags about the thwarted attacker, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In fact, the government knew Abdulmutallab had joined an extremist group during his visit to Yemen, the Associated Press reported, and he was listed in a database of about 550,000 suspected terrorists.


The problem, President Barack Obama said yesterday, was that the government failed to "bring it all together." Abdulmutallab wasn't on the lists that would've triggered additional security screening or kept him off the plane. The AP reports that this has prompted a review of the National Counterterrorism Center's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database.


Granted, there are lots of people pontificating about what's wrong with U.S. attempts to thwart terrorist. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations has an unusual angle: It's a problem of timing and institutional framework, according to Steven Simon, a former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council. He's adamant about not reorganizing Homeland Security again, btw.


But if you're looking at it from an IT angle, it looks suspiciously like a data integration problem, doesn't it?


A recent blog post by Federal News Radio national security correspondent JJ Green claims data integration is the real problem. Green posted Tuesday morning:


"Intelligence sharing is not the problem for the US government when it comes TO counter terrorism failures. A former Senior intelligence official said the problem is data integration. The official said the bits and pieces of information on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day existed, but the system to connect the dots at the speed of light when triggered by any one piece of information is not in place."


Notice the "failed to connect the dots" motif?


Of course, the brief post also mentions that Google manages to connect these sorts of dots everyday.


And, like most data integration problems, this isn't necessarily about technology. In another article published on Federal News Radio (okay, so I dug around awhile - it's a good site - sue me), former program manager for the Information Sharing Environment and now Ambassador Thomas McNamara explains the data standards and information sharing problems he encountered during his three-year tenure at the ISE.


Jill Dyche of Baseline Consulting offered her thoughts on the problem, suggesting that this is a data governance problem. She writes that while the press is focused on the question of "who" - as in "Who was in charge?" and "Who should be fired?" - she believes we should be asking how:

"Instead, the government should be addressing process issues. Indeed, the real conversation should be how to move forward. These questions should be asked now: 'How should we bring identifying data together? What are the key sources? How should integration, access, and usage policies be formulated? What would a sustainable process look like?'"


It's also easy to scoff at the government's failure, but as Dyche points out, these are the same questions many in IT would do well to ask businesses leaders and executives.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 7, 2010 9:02 AM Stephan Wehner Stephan Wehner  says: in response to Francis Carden

Well, I am sure the government has adequate technology to be able to share information between Agencies, it seems to me more like  a question of willingness to share information. Don't forget the old saying:

information is power. And power struggle is happing in all businesses and government sectors, it is just naiv to put a blind eye on this fact. The question "How this structural problem can be fixed" hidds the nail on his head.

Jan 7, 2010 7:34 PM Francis Carden Francis Carden  says:

And a solution here could be put together in about a week. We are not talking rocket science. Technologies exist today to enable a crawl walk run integration strategy. The problem often with technology is that everyone seeks out the perfect solution (and skip years of immediate benefit) instead of applying instant-on solutions that can cover your back-side and provide a progressive step to perfection.

If the administration wants to contact me, I'll show them how OpenSpan does it for about 100 customers all around the globe.


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