Obama to get report on intelligence failures in Abdulmutallab case

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009

President Obama will receive a report Thursday detailing how some government agencies failed to share or highlight potentially relevant information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, while others were insufficiently aggressive in seeking out what was known about him, administration officials said Wednesday.

Intelligence intercepts from Yemen beginning in early August, when Abdulmutallab arrived in that country, contained "bits and pieces about where he was, what his plans were, what he was telling people his plans were," as well as information about planning by the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, a senior administration official said. "At first blush, not all these things appear to be related" to the 23-year-old Nigerian and the bombing attempt, he said, "but we believe they were."

Agencies under particular scrutiny include the CIA, the National Security Agency -- in charge of electronic intercepts -- and the State Department. Each possessed pieces of the puzzle, none of which was considered overly worrisome or immediately actionable -- absent the other pieces -- under existing procedures. The National Counterterrorism Center, established after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to connect the dots government-wide, did not do so.

"The right information did not get to the right people -- there's no question about that," said a senior intelligence official. "If all known information had been provided, we would have been down a different path."

Among the failures officials initially cited, no agency checked to find out whether Abdulmutallab had a valid visa to enter the United States after his father appeared at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria last month expressing concerns about his disappearance and associations in Yemen. Although electronic intercepts from Yemen indicated that an unnamed Nigerian was being groomed for an al-Qaeda mission, and other communications spoke of plans for a terrorist attack during Christmas, none of this information was flagged in a way that would have linked it to the father's report.

One government source described intercepted "voice-to-voice communication" at some point during the fall between Abdulmutallab and extremist Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi indicating that Aulaqi "was in some way involved in facilitating this guy's transportation or trip through Yemen. It could be training, a host of things. I don't think we know for sure," said the source, who like others who discussed the ongoing investigation did so on the condition of anonymity.

"What [Obama] would fault all of us for is having information that could have been and should have been shared but was not," the senior administration official said.

Missed chances

Under increasing pressure from the White House -- itself under sharp criticism from Republicans, who charge that Obama dropped the counterterrorism ball -- agencies continued scouring their files and databases for additional information and proposing changes. They also began pointing fingers at one another.

Some intelligence officials noted that although the CIA has received much of the public criticism, the NSA is responsible for intercepts. Others argued that the reports on Abdulmutallab's father submitted by diplomatic and CIA personnel at the embassy were written so mildly as to beg to be ignored. "It didn't have a specific recommendation for watch-listing," said an intelligence official whose organization reviewed the report. "It could have."

At each step along the way -- from agencies that collect information, to the NCTC, which collates it, to the FBI-run Terrorist Screening Center, which determines who is watch-listed -- the standard is one of "reasonable suspicion" of a terrorist threat. As defined by TSC Director Timothy J. Healy in congressional testimony this month, "reasonable suspicion requires 'articulable' facts, which, taken together with rational inferences, reasonably warrant a determination. . . . Mere guesses or inarticulate 'hunches' are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion."

The State Department noted that its consular database listing all visa holders is available to all intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies.

"The presumption is that within the NCTC process, all information that is relevant to a case will be looked at, including the presence of a visa," a State Department official said. In preliminary reports due for delivery to the president Thursday, the official said, State Department will now take responsibility for checking for visas under all names included in every terrorism-connected report it submits through interagency channels.

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