By Chris Strohm
May 19, 2010
More than a dozen human, technological and policy failures allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian man to evade U.S. defenses and almost blow up a passenger plane as it approached Detroit on Christmas, according to an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The committee said 14 failures within the Obama administration allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to nearly take down Northwest Flight 253 -- an attack that was only prevented because Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb failed to detonate.
"We cannot depend on dumb luck, incompetent terrorists and alert citizens to keep our families safe," Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Kit Bond, R-Mo., said in releasing an unclassified 12-page report of the bipartisan investigation's findings. "It is critical we make changes to prevent these types of intelligence failures in the future."
The report publicly confirms several lapses that came to light after Abdulmutallab was arrested. But it discloses new failures and offers a handful of sweeping recommendations, including calling for the government to develop advanced information technology systems that can make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of intelligence.
Civil liberties advocates fear that recommendation might resurrect the Total Information Awareness program, funding for which was killed by Congress in 2003 over fears that it would invade privacy rights.
Significantly, the report found that the National Counterterrorism Center "was not adequately organized and did not have the resources appropriately allocated to fulfill its missions" before the attempted attack. The center was created in 2005 to overcome government failures exposed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The investigation also found the NCTC did not conduct additional research to identify other intelligence that may have led Abdulmutallab to be put on the watch lists.
The report also fingered the National Security Agency. "The NSA did not take all available actions which contributed to the failure of the Intelligence Community to identify Abdulmutallab as a potential threat," the report said.
The NSA also did not nominate Abdulmutallab for watch-listing based on information partly identifying him, the report added.
The CIA drew criticism for not disseminating key reports on Abdulmutallab. "Had the CIA intelligence report been disseminated, other intelligence officers outside of the CIA and NCTC who tracked intelligence on Yemen and [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] may have made the connection between the information provided," the report said.
The investigation found the CIA had reports related to Abdulmutallab, but a regional division failed to search other databases that would have identified relevant information about him.
The report also said an analyst's computer profile prevented her from accessing relevant intelligence reports, despite their existence in FBI systems.
Notably, the report concluded that counterterrorism analysts were focused on the threat of al-Qaida attacks in Yemen, rather than those directed toward the United States. A similar problem contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the national commission that investigated those attacks.
But the committee acknowledged its inquiry had the benefit of "20-20 hindsight," while intelligence about Abdulmutallab at the time of the incident was co-mingled with thousands of intelligence reports.
The offices of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta issued statements late Tuesday that they have undertaken corrective actions to address problems identified by the report.
The report recommended that the administration work with Congress to "simplify, strengthen, and add flexibility to watch-listing practices."
Intelligence officers responsible for updating terrorist watch lists should have the flexibility to give weight to other information, while the NCTC should change its practices to allow nominations to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list based on partially identifying or other incomplete information, the report said.
The report added that the NSA "should immediately clear the backlog of reports that require review for watch-listing."
Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., wrote a four-page minority view saying problems cited by the 9/11 Commission remain today. They asserted, for example, that the NCTC told senators that no single agency is in charge of connecting threat streams, even though the NCTC was established to do that.
Counterterrorism officials still lack technology to search voluminous intelligence databases efficiently, they added.
"While we commend the Intelligence Community's hard-working personnel for their dedicated and tireless services, we are concerned that the policies, procedures and technology that they must work within today are hampering their ability to detect in advance the next attack against the Homeland," Burr and Chambliss wrote.
By Chris Strohm
May 19, 2010