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White House pledges to fix intelligence gaps

Inquiries show better communication might have flagged an alleged terrorist who boarded a U.S.-bound flight with explosives, officials say.

January 01, 2010|By Josh Meyer and Peter Nicholas and Alana Semuels
  • President Obama, shown in Hawaii, plans a series of meetings next week, after his return to Washington, to help counter-terrorism agencies find better ways to share information. Key pieces of intelligence weren't linked in time, officials say.
President Obama, shown in Hawaii, plans a series of meetings next week,… (Cory Lum / Pool Photo )

Reporting from Washington and Honolulu — The Obama administration pledged Thursday to close gaps in the intelligence system that enabled a suspected terrorist carrying explosives to board a U.S.-bound plane, and vowed to create a better system for sharing and analyzing the information that floods the intelligence community.

The White House based its assertions on the early findings of two inquiries into what it calls the "human and systemic failures" that took place in the run-up to a Nigerian man's alleged attempt to blow up a plane carrying nearly 300 people from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas.

The administration would not release the conclusions, but it said Obama will hold meetings next week in Washington aimed at getting the tangle of government agencies responsible for fighting terrorism to more diligently assess and share information.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that she would send senior department officials to meet with leaders from major international airports in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America to review security procedures and technology being used to screen passengers on U.S.-bound flights.

Senior administration and intelligence officials said the inquiries' preliminary findings show that in some cases, systemic problems, including a lack of interagency coordination, prevented key pieces of information from being shared or matched up.

But in other cases, intelligence analysts simply didn't connect the disparate pieces of information already in their computer databases that could have flagged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and stopped him from boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253, according to officials familiar with the preliminary investigation.

The need for the White House review underscores one of the more troubling aspects of the Christmas incident: Despite spending billions to shore up the nation's defenses and intelligence networks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. still struggles to digest and act upon all of its anti-terrorism intelligence.

"It points to something fundamental," said Richard A. Clarke, a former top counter-terrorism official in the Bush and Clinton administrations. "No matter how good your software is or how good your procedures are, at the end of the day it comes back to people. And if people think that this is a 9-5 job and they're not filled with a sense of urgency every day, then you'll get these kinds of mistakes."

Briefing reporters in Hawaii, a senior administration official said the various intelligence breakdowns identified so far are being addressed.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "When we do have information and when we have good information -- as we often do, given how good our intelligence professionals are -- the failure to share that information is not going to be tolerated."

According to intelligence and administration officials, the lack of communication and intelligence-sharing is especially apparent in the Abdulmutallab case.

Starting in August, the National Security Agency intercepted some communications between senior members of Al Qaeda's regional network in Yemen in which they discussed possible attacks involving an unidentified Nigerian.

But those intercepts were vague, did not refer to potential attacks on U.S. soil, and were not highlighted as an urgent cause for concern for the nation's analysts at the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center or elsewhere in the U.S. intelligence community, according to officials familiar with the communications.

Then, in November, Abdulmutallab's father told officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, that his 23-year-old son had fallen in with a group of extremists and might have traveled to Yemen.

Much of that information was sent back to Washington in a classified cable, and although officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., prepared a formal report on the father's information, it wasn't shared with the larger intelligence community until after the jet incident, an intelligence official familiar with the document said.

Administration officials have said that the information in that report could have placed Abdulmutallab on federal lists that would have subjected him to additional screenings or barred him from flying.

But other officials said the CIA did send the raw data from the father's visit to classified computer networks that are available to all analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center, the agency set up after Sept. 11 as a clearinghouse for intelligence.

Some U.S. officials said the raw data would not have flagged the suspect because the information was too vague.

"Abdulmutallab's father didn't say his son was a terrorist, let alone planning an attack," another U.S. intelligence official said. "I'm not aware of [any] intelligence that suddenly would have flagged this guy -- whose name nobody even had until November -- as a killer en route to America."

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