Spy agencies faulted for missing Christmas Day bomb attempt, Senate panel finds

By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; A02

A Senate investigation of the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day has criticized U.S. spy agencies for squandering opportunities to detect the threat ahead of time.

The report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that the government had enough information to block the suspect from boarding the flight, but was hobbled by breakdowns that included human error as well as computer glitches at agencies such as the State Department, the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center.

The report amounts to a bleak assessment of U.S. security agencies at a time when they are facing renewed scrutiny because of another narrowly averted domestic plot: the attempted bombing of Times Square this month. Overall, the Senate panel found "systemic failures across the intelligence community," despite widespread attempts to restructure it in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"There is no longer any doubt that major intelligence failures allowed the Christmas Day bomber to almost turn our airplanes into deadly weapons once again," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee. "We cannot depend on dumb luck, incompetent terrorists and alert citizens to keep our families safe."

The attack was thwarted when passengers on the Northwest Airlines flight detected smoke and quickly subdued Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, who has been charged with attempting to detonate an explosive device aboard the aircraft.

In addition to faulting the State Department for not revoking Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa -- even though officials had concluded that his name should have been on a watch list -- the report asserts that the National Counterterrorism Center failed at its fundamental mission of serving as the government's nerve center for terrorist-related threats.

The NCTC was singled out for harsher criticism in an appendix to the report submitted by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Richard Burr (N.C.). The lawmakers said the NCTC "did not believe it was the sole agency . . . for piecing together all terrorism threats," even though it was created in 2004 for that purpose.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair issued a statement noting that the community has adopted reforms and "is aggressively focused on potential threats." Still, he acknowledged that "institutional and technological barriers remain that prevent seamless sharing of information. We can and must outthink, outwork and defeat our enemies."

The Obama administration, which also was faulted for its questioning of Abdulmutallab after his arrest, offered new details Tuesday about one of its key counterterrorism initiatives: the creation of three mobile teams to interrogate suspects in the United States and overseas, including suspects in the custody of foreign governments.

The teams are part of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, which the administration announced last August as part of its repudiation of George W. Bush-era interrogation techniques. The interrogation teams are to stay within the parameters of the Army Field Manual when questioning suspects.

White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan said Tuesday night that the teams have interrogated Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad, the suspect captured after the failed car bomb attempt in Times Square on May 1.

Although the group had not been fully activated by the time Abdulmutallab was taken into custody on Christmas, some of its participants did gain access to him eventually, Brennan said at a dinner hosted by the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

"These mobile interrogation teams have been deployed on multiple occasions," Brennan said.

Staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report.

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