Obama to get report on intelligence failures in Abdulmutallab case

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; A01

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.

Within the intelligence community, the uproar over Abdulmutallab has reignited longstanding resentments over the NCTC and the national intelligence directorate, which was set up in 2005 as an umbrella organization to oversee and coordinate intelligence among agencies. Although the NCTC is composed of representatives from the agencies themselves, the CIA and others were reluctant to relinquish ownership of the tasks assumed by the NCTC, including analyzing "all source" intelligence and directly advising the president.

Speculation swirled through Congress and the administration Wednesday that Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair might be forced to resign as a result of the Abdulmutallab case, along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Napolitano announced Sunday that the counterterrorism "system worked," only to clarify a day later that it clearly had not prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding a U.S.-bound aircraft allegedly with an explosive device.

Passing information

While senior administration officials appeared determined, short of firing anyone, to portray Obama as resolute and insisting on action, they indicated that no one's head would be put on a platter. "This is not about one person or one agency," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

No matter what blame is assessed, intelligence experts inside and outside the government questioned where the problem ultimately lies -- with the system that collects terrorism information and determines what to do about it, with the people who operate it, or with the sheer volume of information that passes through it.

"The real story line internally is not information-sharing or connecting dots. That's a dry hole," a former intelligence official said Wednesday. "Information was shared. It was separating noise from chaff. It's not that information wasn't passed around, it's that so much information is being passed. There's an inherent problem of dealing with all the data that is sloshing around, and the practical matter of where you set your threshold."

Former CIA director Porter J. Goss said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was part of the problem. "Everything that happened on December 25 is exactly the stuff that's not supposed to happen anymore because of the new structure created with the DNI," he said. "What we're now seeing is that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not made one iota of improvement."

The NCTC, which collects information received from all agencies in a large database, depends on the other agencies to red-flag items of particular interest. Information thought to be important is then turned over to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which supervises the assembly of airline, border and visa watch lists. The screening center itself is made up of representatives from the separate government agencies.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, proposed that Obama immediately change screening standards to automatically place on a watch list "anyone who is reasonably believed to be affiliated with, part of, or acting on behalf of a terrorist organization."

Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), a member of the 9/11 commission, which first proposed the intelligence reforms, said the DNI ought to be strengthened -- not weakened, as some intelligence experts have proposed -- to enforce intelligence-sharing among agencies.

Others were uncertain of where the blame should be placed but agreed that someone should be held responsible. "When government officials receive credible tips like that provided by Abdulmutallab's father regarding Yemen . . . someone's hair should be on fire," Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security intelligence subcommittee, said in a statement.

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, Carrie Johnson, Anne E. Kornblut, Ellen Nakashima, R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

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