Bombing reports start trickling in to Obama

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010

The nation's top intelligence officer said Thursday that he will "commend those who did their jobs well and hold accountable those who did not," as President Obama began assessing the failures that allowed a Nigerian man known to have possible terrorist connections to board a U.S.-bound aircraft allegedly carrying a bomb on Christmas Day.

In a letter distributed throughout the sometimes fractious 16-agency intelligence community, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair emphasized the need for them to "work together . . . as a mutually supporting team." He said ongoing reviews will ascertain "what information was available to whom" about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his contacts with al-Qaeda in Yemen and will determine "what mistakes were made in assessing and sharing that information."

Preliminary agency reports were to be delivered to Obama, vacationing in Hawaii until next week, by midnight Thursday. In a statement, the president said he received telephone briefings from John O. Brennan, his top counterterrorism official, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Obama said he will convene a White House meeting with intelligence and homeland security chiefs on Tuesday.

In Washington, administration officials briefed members of the intelligence committees and their staffs, although some in attendance said the sessions imparted little information. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the panel will conduct its own investigation of intelligence failures and hold hearings beginning Jan. 21.

"The Christmas Day incident revealed some serious failures in our nation's system of security," Feinstein said. She said she hoped that "we can pause to remember how this nation -- both Republicans and Democrats -- put aside political differences and worked together after the 9/11 attacks."

Bond was blunt in his criticism, saying, "Somebody screwed up big-time."

As more details emerged, there seemed ample blame to go around. The National Counterterrorism Center, a centralized body that collates and assesses intelligence from all sources, did not succeed at its primary task of identifying connections between disparate reports.

Administration officials faulted the National Security Agency for not calling attention to intercepted communications from Yemen during the late summer and fall referring to a "Nigerian" being readied for an al-Qaeda attack, as well as what some intelligence officials said were direct conversations there between Abdulmutallab, whose name was unknown at the time, and radical American Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi.

On Nov. 20, the CIA and the State Department learned from Abdulmutallab's worried father in Nigeria that his son was dealing with apparent radicals in Yemen and had severed all communication with his family. Although their reports put Abdulmutallab's name in the counterterrorism system for the first time, neither agency pursued the matter, checked whether he had a valid U.S. visa, or linked the information to the earlier intelligence about the unidentified Nigerian.

There is general agreement within the administration that the preponderance of information, put together, would have resulted in Abdulmutallab being added to a watch list and prohibited from boarding Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Dec. 25.

The reviews are also revealing other, more systemic problems. The 2004 intelligence reforms that created Blair's office, and the NCTC beneath it, called for new computer systems that would allow smooth coordination of all intelligence and other pertinent databases, making them immediately available and searchable to all who needed to know, but those initiatives remain incomplete.

Although far more is available than when NCTC was established five years ago, "there is not a general search function," one intelligence official said.

Some changes have been made in the past week. The NCTC has deepened its examination of information from and about certain countries -- including Nigeria -- and has lowered the bar for proposing that people in certain categories be watch-listed rather than merely being entered in the database.

Napolitano announced Thursday that she has dispatched her deputy, Jane Holl Lute, and other senior officials to meet with leaders from major international airports to "review security procedures and technology being used to screen passengers on flights bound for the United States," a DHS statement said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company