I’ve been chewing over this comment of President Obama’s since he delivered it yesterday:

Although our intelligence community had learned a great deal about the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen — called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — that we knew that they sought to strike the United States and that they were recruiting operatives to do so — the intelligence community did not aggressively follow up on and prioritize particular streams of intelligence related to a possible attack against the homeland… this contributed to a larger failure of analysis —- a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community and which, together, could have revealed that Abdulmutallab was planning an attack.

I’m stuck thinking that Obama’s conflating the proposition that there were sufficient dots to yield a picture of Dangerous Abdulmutallab with the proposition that there were sufficient dots to contextualize Abdulmutallab and require either further investigation. The first proposition is, I think, unfair to the intelligence community, because the major piece of data on Abdulmutallab is that his father told U.S. embassy officials in Abuja that he was potentially dangerous and might be in Yemen. As I’ve been reporting & writing for days, that’s just not enough information. But it is enough information to have set people investigating Abdulmutallab further, and maybe that would have gotten you something concrete enough to meet the specificity standards for getting him on the no-fly. Alas.

And here’s where it’s become unfortunate that mainstream political discourse has created negative connotations around a “law enforcement approach to terrorism.” I can guarantee you that if you said to someone, “Hey, do you think that in terrorism investigations, we should create the perspective amongst counterterrorists that their job doesn’t stop until someone is neutralized?” they would say “Yes.” Well, you goddamn hippie: you’ve got a law enforcement mindset. I guess people don’t understand this enough, but intelligence analysts approach their craft rather differently. They look for patterns in information, and pass those patterns up the chain. They do not investigate in the sense of the word that you and I understand from TV. That’s why there was no APB inside the CIA or the National Counterterrorism Center on Abdulmutallab after his father’s walk-in. Abdulmutallab, in the intelligence world, is a data point. He is not a suspect.

Now, if you had the FBI handling the Abdulmutallab portfolio, or people who think like FBI agents, maybe it still doesn’t go anywhere. But maybe they start compiling information and building a case and new information turns up and the guy gets yanked before he’s on the plane. I gather that’s what John Brennan meant when he said yesterday there was “no one intelligence entity or team or task force [that] was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation.” None of this is to say the FBI has to be given the lead for these sorts of things. A joint approach is the right approach if you want to see everyone’s information. But it is to say that within that joint entity, analysts need — wait for it — a law enforcement approach to terrorism.