Paul Pillar

Success and Failure in Counterterrorism

Reactions to the shipping from Yemen of two package bombs has demonstrated anew that public assessments of how well or how poorly the U.S. Government performs in countering terrorism have little correlation with how well or how poorly the U.S. Government actually is performing in countering terrorism. The public assessments depend on several things, but what U.S. agencies do, for better or for worse, with what is in their power to do does not seem to be one of those things.

Any successful terrorist attack—one in which a bomb goes off or something else happens to get innocent people killed—is invariably scored as a government failure, no matter what government actually did, was reasonable to expect it to do, or was able to do at all. The automatic scoring stems from an attitude of zero tolerance that holds that if government agencies are working properly then there should never be any successful terrorist attacks. Few people would state the expectation that way, but that is what the scoring practice implies. The scoring practice is followed even when there is no substantial difference in what government agencies did in the case of the successful attack and how they behaved in other attacks that were not successful, with the difference due essentially to luck or to factors outside the agencies' control.

The scoring gets more complicated with unsuccessful terrorist attacks. Some such incidents are scored as good performance by the government, and some as poor performance. One determinant of how they are scored is whether there are specific unconnected “dots” that can be looked at in hindsight and whose unconnected status can be lamented, whether or not there was anything to distinguish these dots from countless meaningless ones. Another determinant is whether executive branch leaders appear publicly to be out in front of the incident, whether or not they are any more in front of it that they are with other incidents. There also is a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating aspect to these public evaluations. Once a incident gets scored early a few times as good performance, the evaluation gets repeated by other commentators and the incident gets stuck in the public mind as a good performance. Likewise in the opposite direction with incidents that get scored early as poor performance.

Two recent unsuccessful and well publicized terrorist attacks with a Yemeni angle—one in December involving a U.S.-bound air passenger with explosives in his underwear, and the other last week involving the package bombs—illustrate these patterns. The December incident involved some of those lamentably unconnected “dots” such as a father's appeal to a U.S. embassy about his wayward son. By the nature of the incident, it also was not the White House that got to break the news to the public. Largely because of criticism over that incident, the White House played to the hilt its opportunity with last week's incident to manage public exposure to the story in a way that made the administration look like it was on top of the situation. The president himself made the announcement about explosives being involved.

The differences are reflected in how the two incidents have been entered on the national scorecard. The event with the underwear bomber in December is marked as poor performance. The New York Times editorial page told us again yesterday that “the Obama team was justly criticized” for its handling of that incident. In contrast, the package bomb matter has been scored as good performance. Even Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the administration “handled it perfectly.”

But look more closely at what the government did in each case and what it had to work with in each case, and there simply is no basis for such diametrically opposite scoring. Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, put into correct perspective some of those unconnected “dots” in the December incident when he said that the Nigerian father's appeal about his lost son—an appeal which said nothing about terrorism—would not have made it into the most noteworthy thousand items coming through his office in any given week. Government officials did not have in that case what they would get in the package bomb incident: highly specific, actionable information. The information in the latter case was so specific that it included a FedEx tracking number.

Look at where that specific information came from: a foreign service, who got it from a well-placed defector. From the U.S. point of view, it was a lucky break. Cultivating good relations with liaison services improves our chances of benefiting from such breaks, but such cultivation is not what accounts for the occurrence of such a break in the most recent case and its non-occurrence in the December episode.

Note also that the package bombs, which officials now say were intended to be detonated in flight, made it on to several flights before being intercepted. So another lucky break was that the detonation mechanisms may not have worked as intended, or the bomb maker programmed them to go off later than he might have programmed them. If one of the bombs had gone off in the air, the whole incident would have been scored as a government failure, even though the government's performance would have been identical to its actual performance.