A failure to communicate surrounding would-be bomber

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

ALLEGED BOMBER Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should never have been able to board Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. In an editorial Tuesday we highlighted the available advanced imaging technology that would have revealed the lethal explosive hidden in his underwear. Now we want to shine a light on the stunning breakdown in communication among the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the British government that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to buy a ticket in the first place.

To understand the "mix of human and systemic failures" that President Obama admitted Tuesday, you need only read the transcript of Monday's State Department news briefing. Mr. Abdulmutallab's father walked into the U.S. Embassy in Abujah, Nigeria, on Nov. 19 to express concern about his son. The prominent Nigerian banker told officials that his son had disappeared in Yemen, had become radicalized in Islam and severed all ties with the family. The next day that information was sent in a cable to the National Counterterrorism Center, which is the central repository for terrorism information. While that agency put Mr. Abdulmutallab's name on the vast (and seemingly inconsequential) terrorist watch list, it didn't believe that the information provided by the father was enough to hoist the son onto the "no-fly" or "selectee" list.

This might make sense were it not for a key fact that was there for all to see, but that State failed to call attention to: The would-be bomber had been issued a two-year visa to enter the United States in June 2008. "Anybody who went in to input that information [in a government database] would see that he had a visa from Embassy London," said State's spokesman, Ian Kelly. Yet no one did.

There was also the fact that the British government had denied a visa to Mr. Abdulmutallab in May and placed him on its watch list. British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that U.S. officials should have been told that and believes they were. But again, the NCTC officials deciding on Mr. Abdulmutallab's status apparently lacked that information.

The failure of the NCTC tripwire was not the only one that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to board Flight 253. Having disappeared in Yemen over the summer, he turned up on Dec. 16 in Accra, Ghana, where he bought his Lagos-Amsterdam-Detroit ticket -- with cash. That, and the fact that he checked in without luggage, should have flagged him for further screening at the Lagos airport before his Dec. 24 flight to Amsterdam, and again when he transferred in Amsterdam for the Detroit flight. It didn't.

"It's essential that we diagnose the problems quickly," Mr. Obama said Tuesday. The president said he wants a preliminary report on the use of detection equipment and the gaps in information-sharing by Thursday. That's a fast turnaround -- but it's also more than enough time. The failures are there for all to see.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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