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Obama vows to repair intelligence gaps behind Detroit airplane incident

By Carrie Johnson, Karen DeYoung and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A01

President Obama said Tuesday that a "mix of human and systemic failures" allowed a Nigerian student allegedly carrying explosives to board an airplane en route to Detroit on Christmas Day, and he vowed to quickly fix flaws that could have doomed a flight carrying nearly 300 passengers and crew members.

The president and his top advisers now believe there is "some linkage" with al-Qaeda, and the administration is "increasingly confident" that the terrorist group worked with suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to secure the deadly chemical mixture that he took aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

White House officials also said the government had intelligence suggesting a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaeda around Christmas, although the reports were not specific.

Obama's stark remarks came two days after his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said information provided by the suspect's father before the failed bombing plot was so vague that it did not merit further investigation. Napolitano also said that "the system worked" in this incident, drawing a political outcry from Republican lawmakers and national security experts.

As the Obama administration reviewed the government's actions, investigators in Yemen on Tuesday visited an Arabic language institute attended by Abdulmutallab and asked about his ties to a mosque in the capital's historic section.

In the United States, FBI agents conducted fresh interviews of each passenger on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight and focused on Abdulmutallab's past six months, when investigators suspect that he grew increasingly radicalized, according to two federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to interfere with the investigation.

Over the past year, Abdulmutallab intensified electronic communications with the extremist Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, the federal sources said. Aulaqi also corresponded with the Army major accused in last month's Fort Hood, Tex., massacre, officials have said.

From his vacation spot in Hawaii, the president blamed lapses in information-sharing after Abdulmutallab's father alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria last month about his son, who had embraced radical views and cut off ties with his prosperous family. Government officials said they already have identified faulty systems and failures to follow procedure, and Obama has demanded preliminary results of a review by Thursday.

"It now appears that, weeks ago, this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list," Obama said. ". . . Had this critical information been shared . . . the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."

He added: "A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable."

'Bits of information'

Intelligence officials said they are eager to close whatever gaps the Abdulmutallab case may have exposed. But several took issue with Obama's reference to "bits of information available within the intelligence community," saying that what might appear clear in retrospect was far from conclusive at the time.

"Abdulmutallab's father didn't say his son was a terrorist" when he visited the U.S. Embassy, "let alone [that he was] planning an attack. Not at all," one U.S. intelligence official said. "I'm not aware of some magic piece of intelligence that suddenly would have flagged this guy -- whose name nobody even had until November -- as a killer en route to America, let alone something that anybody withheld."

Intelligence officials said there were references to a Nigerian in some National Security Agency intercepts of communications involving Aulaqi and others, but none mentioned Abdulmutallab by name.

Elsewhere in the government, State Department and immigration databases had information about Abdulmutallab's two previous visits to the United States -- to the Washington area in the summer of 2004 and to Houston for what officials said was a "religious conference" in August 2008 -- and the valid multiple-entry visa he still possessed.

Taken together, the father's report, the visa and the intercepts might have been enough to flag Abdulmutallab for posting on a no-fly watch list or for further action. But within the existing terror database, under the current assessment guidelines, such correlations were not made; the father's concerns were given a low priority and were not pursued.

The first of two orders Obama issued Tuesday directed national security agencies to produce by Thursday a written report detailing "all intelligence or other information in U.S. government files" through last Friday "relevant or potentially relevant" to the bombing attempt and to Abdulmutallab, "the date on which the intelligence or other information was available" and how it was handled, as well as information on current watch-list "standards and processes." The second order directed a review of aviation screening.

More extensive reviews, led by John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, and the Department of Homeland Security, will look at what changes need to be made in the watch list and airport detection systems that failed to flag Abdulmutallab as an imminent security risk and allowed him to board an aircraft with explosives.

Interagency tensions

The seriousness of the lapse, and Obama's reference to both "human and systemic" failures, appear to have revived resentments within the intelligence community, particularly between the CIA and the director of national intelligence. When the DNI's office was created, as part of the post-Sept. 11 intelligence reforms, it usurped the CIA's position as the head of the intelligence community, and the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) under the DNI gave the counterterrorism center primary responsibility for integrating all information.

"The United States government set up NCTC to connect the dots on terrorism," the intelligence official said. "If somebody thinks it could have been done better in this case, they know where to go for answers."

During his embassy visit on Nov. 19, Abdulmutallab's father met with State Department and CIA officials. The agency "did not have [Abdulmutallab's] name before then," spokesman Paul Gimigliano said. The report sent to the NCTC database, he said, included the father's mention of "possible extremist connections in Yemen."

"We also forwarded key biographical information about him" to the NCTC, Gimigliano said. "This agency, like others in our government, is reviewing all data to which it had access -- not just what we ourselves may have collected -- to determine if more could have been done to stop Abdulmutallab."

Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security, said: "Undoubtedly we're going to find there was additional information in the system that no one understood until after the event. Clearly people needed to be more aggressive . . . to ask additional questions."

Former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff said the federal government should develop "a continuous process of re-vetting people who have been cleared once but over time become dangerous."

A working vacation

Obama's advisers insisted that Tuesday's remarks were not a reaction to criticism about his earlier silence. But the president left no doubt that he is working throughout his vacation in Hawaii as Republicans continue to attack his -- and his homeland security director's -- handling of the matter. Obama referred to Napolitano by name in his comments, signaling that her job is safe, despite calls for her resignation.

Until last week, the administration had boasted about its anti-terrorism efforts, especially its arrest of a young Afghan in Colorado who had visited an al-Qaeda training camp. But officials expressed frustration about the way the Detroit incident unfolded politically and redoubled their efforts to show that the administration is seizing control of the problems and their solutions.

"Everybody recognizes that when a person gets on a plane with explosives, that was a failure," said senior presidential adviser David Axelrod.

An al-Qaeda affiliate that operates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen took responsibility for the airline attack in a statement this week that U.S. intelligence officials deem credible. The Obama administration agreed Tuesday with that assessment, with a senior official telling reporters on the condition of anonymity that the government had received new information Monday night "that spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, [and] what some of the plans of al-Qaeda were."

Abdulmutallab remains in a Detroit area prison and, after initial debriefings by the FBI, has restricted his cooperation since securing a defense attorney, according to federal officials.

The British government has stepped back from initial statements that it had passed along its concerns after Abdulmutallab was denied a visa in May. The denial, sources said, was based on immigration issues, rather than terrorism concerns, and Abdulmutallab was listed only on a domestic watch list that is not routinely transmitted to foreign intelligence services.

A Yemeni official said his government had no indication from foreign intelligence operatives that Abdulmutallab had engaged in suspicious behavior.

Kornblut reported from Hawaii. Staff writer Michael D. Shear and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Yemen contributed to this report.

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