Report to Obama on what went wrong in attempted jet bombing shows intelligence lapses persist

By Philip Elliott, AP
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Report to Obama shows intelligence lapses persist

HONOLULU — U.S. security chiefs briefed President Barack Obama on Thursday about missteps in the lead-up to the attempted Detroit jetliner bombing as lawmakers joined the White House in racing to find out what went wrong.

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced Jan. 21 hearings as part of an investigation to begin sooner. “We will be following the intelligence down the rabbit hole to see where the breakdown occurred and how to prevent this failure in the future,” said Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, top Republican on the committee. “Somebody screwed up big time.”

Few questioned that judgment, even if Obama’s fellow Democrats rendered it in more measured tones. Vacationing in Hawaii, Obama received an preliminary assessment ahead of meetings he will hold in Washington next week on fixing the failures of the nation’s anti-terrorism policy. Administration officials said the system to protect the nation’s skies from terrorists was deeply flawed and, even then, the government failed to follow its own directives.

Obama spoke separately with counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who announced she was dispatching senior department officials to international airports to review their security procedures.

Despite billions of dollars spent to sharpen America’s eye on dangerous malcontents abroad and at home, the creation of an intelligence-information overseer and countless declarations of intentions to cooperate, it was already clear that the country’s national security fiefdoms were still not operating in harmony before the attempted bombing Dec. 25.

The preliminary assessment is part of a continuing, urgent examination that officials said Thursday is highlighting signals that should not have been missed. One likely outcome, they said, was new requirements within the government to review a suspicious person’s visa status.

Officials are tracing a communications breakdown that would have had grave consequences except for the attacker’s fumbling failure to detonate an explosion and the quick response of others on the flight. Now Obama, like George W. Bush before him, is struggling to get the nation’s disparate intelligence and security agencies on the same page.

In the heat of hindsight, even Obama and some fellow Democrats are excoriating a system they thought was on the mend in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Democrats are joining a chorus led by Obama in declaring the government’s intelligence procedures in need of repair. Among them, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said that when the government gets tipped to trouble as it did before a Nigerian man boarded a Detroit-bound jet with explosives, “someone’s hair should be on fire.”

Instead an anxious father’s pointed warning that 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had drifted into extremism in Yemen, an al-Qaida hotbed, was only partially digested by the U.S. security apparatus and not linked with a visa history showing the young man could fly to the U.S.

That was one prominent lapse the review is addressing, said U.S. officials familiar with the process. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.

The State Department has said it followed the procedures laid out in regulations adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that require it to share potential threat information in an interagency process led by the National Counterterrorism Center.

In this case, the potential threat was in the form of the father’s warning expressed to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, that Abdulmutallab was falling under the influence of extremists in Yemen. The information was passed to Washington the next day in a so-called Visas Viper cable identifying potential terrorists.

While meeting the standards set out in the regulations, the cable did not contain supplementary information, such as the fact that Abdulmutallab held a valid U.S. visa, the officials said. Although that detail could have been found by looking in other databases, officials said the review is likely to make the reporting of a subject’s visa history mandatory.

The State Department received no request to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa, spokesman Ian Kelly said. He said that in the post-Sept. 11 era, State normally relies on an interagency screening system to advise the department of visas that should be revoked based on terrorism-related concerns, although it has the authority to do so on its own.

The department’s visa and reporting procedures are being examined as part of the government’s review, Kelly said.

Other clues were missed too, such as conversations between the suspect and at least one al-Qaida member that U.S. authorities are studying now. The form of the conversations, whether written or by phone, has not been disclosed and it is not known whether U.S. officials intercepted them before the attack or found them later.

For the second time in two months leaders are acknowledging “systemic” security lapses due in part to the government’s failure to sift through and fully share intelligence.

In the year before the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting rampage in November that killed 13 people, a joint terrorism task force overseen by the FBI learned of the Army suspect’s repeated contact with a radical cleric in Yemen who encouraged Muslims to kill U.S. troops but did not relay the information about the major to superiors.

The government overhauled the intelligence system in 2004, creating the office of national intelligence director as part of it. The goal was to ensure that information pulled from a multitude of intelligence sources and sometimes hoarded by one agency reaches authorities who are capable of penetrating the white noise of information and acting on genuine threats.

“The act set up a process to transition from a ‘need to know’ culture to a ‘need to share’ culture, but the Christmas bomb incident is evidence that we have much work to do,” said Harman, who leads a House homeland security panel.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “The Christmas Day incident revealed some serious failures in our nation’s system of security.”

Woodward reported from Washington.

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