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IT failures, weak processes and an attempted terrorist attack

Human error, a failure to conduct database searches, weak information technology and process problems contributed to a security failure that allowed Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to sneak an explosive device onto a Northwest flight Christmas Day, according to a White House review of the terrorist attack.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

Human error, a failure to conduct database searches, weak information technology and process problems contributed to a security failure that allowed Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to sneak an explosive device onto a Northwest flight Christmas Day, according to a White House review of the terrorist attack.

It's hard to read the White House review without being a touch cynical. After all, Abdulmutallab's father told intelligence officials that his son turned extremist and the guy still didn't wind up on any terrorist watchlist.

But let's stick to the information technology. If you stripped out the names and agencies in the report the Abdulmutallab fiasco reads like a lot of IT failures.

The good news: Groups like the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the rest of the counterterrorism parts weren't hoarding data. The data was there, the Feds just failed to put the analytics behind the moving parts. Details of those moving parts are a bit sketchy as the White House report stripped out anything sensitive.

Like many companies, the counterterrorism failed to connect the dots and paid the price. The difference here is that the U.S. isn't playing for market share or better earnings, but the safety of citizens against terrorist groups like al-Qu'ida.

The report is worth a read (White House blog). Here's a look at the IT failure parts:

  • Humans: The report said a finished intelligence report on Abdulmutallab was delayed. Meanwhile, there were faulty database searches on Abdulmutallab's name.
  • Systems: "Information technology within the counterterrorism community did not sufficiently enable the correlation of data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information," according to the report.
  • Processes: "There was not a comprehensive or functioning process for tracking terrorist threat reporting and actions taken such that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads," according to the report.

The big question is this: How do you aggregate disparate pieces of information to form a narrative that's solid enough to spur action. Overall, the White House concludes that all legacy standards and protocols need to be reviewed in the counterterrorism community.

Also: Enterprise 2.0: Totally Unacceptable

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