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Plane suspect was listed in terror database after father alerted U.S. officials

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.

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Some, but not all, information from TIDE is transferred to the FBI-maintained Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB), from which consular, border and airline watch lists are drawn. The Transportation Security Administration has a "no-fly" list of about 4,000 people who are prohibited from boarding any domestic or U.S.-bound aircraft. A separate list of about 14,000 "selectees" require additional scrutiny but are not banned from flying.

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Abdulmutallab's name never made it past the TIDE database. "A TIDE record on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was created in November 2009," one administration official said, but "there was insufficient information available on the subject at that time to include him in the TSDB or its 'no fly' or 'selectee' lists."

Several top Republicans criticized the administration's approach to counterterrorism, saying the government had not pieced together warning signs in recent cases, including the slayings of 13 people at Fort Hood, allegedly by a Muslim soldier. "I think the administration is finally recognizing that they got this terrorism thing all wrong," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee and a state gubernatorial candidate. "I think we came very, very close to losing that plane last night."

After being briefed by federal authorities, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said Abdulmutallab did not undergo body scans that might have helped detect the explosive material when he went through security at airports in Nigeria and Amsterdam.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, released a statement saying he was "troubled by several aspects" of the case, including the visit by Abdulmutallab's father to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.

Democrats in the House and Senate vowed to hold hearings in January but also urged caution in jumping to conclusions. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said a federal official briefed lawmakers about "strong suggestions of a Yemen-al-Qaeda connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace."

Administration officials said President Obama is seeking accountability in the incident, although he has not demanded any sort of special review. He is getting detailed briefings on the facts of the case and the airport security changes while on vacation in Hawaii, the officials said.

One administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Abdulmutallab received his 2008 tourist visa from the U.S. Embassy in London. "We interviewed him, and his name was run against the watch list maintained by [the Department of Homeland Security] and the FBI," the official said. "There was no indication of any derogatory information. There is every indication that whatever radicalization took place occurred recently."

In a new emergency order effective until Wednesday, TSA is requiring that all passengers bound for the United States undergo a "thorough pat-down" at boarding gates, concentrating on the upper legs and torso. All carry-on baggage also should be inspected, focusing on syringes with powders or liquids, TSA said.

In addition, passengers must remain seated and may not access carry-on baggage for the final hour before the landing or hold any personal item on their laps.

The extraordinary steps came as former senior U.S. officials spoke in unusually blunt terms about the apparent failure of aviation security measures to detect a common military explosive allegedly brought on board.

Michael Chertoff, who was homeland security secretary from 2005 to 2009, said terrorists appear to have exploited the natural inhibition of screeners to conduct overly intrusive searches, and he renewed calls for widespread expansion of whole-body imaging scanners that use radio waves or X-rays to reveal objects beneath a person's clothes. Chertoff said the government has sought to expand use of imaging scanners, but privacy advocates and Congress have raised objections.

"This plot is an example of something we've known could exist in theory, and in order to be able to detect it, you've got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren't easy to get at," Chertoff said. "It's either pat-downs or imaging, or otherwise hoping that bad guys haven't figured it out, and I guess bad guys have figured it out."


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