U.S. intelligence agencies had enough “bits and pieces” of information to thwart the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing, a senior administration official said Tuesday, but they failed to properly analyze and share it.
Instead, what President Obama called a potentially catastrophic “mix of human and systemic failures” allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian to board a U.S.-bound airliner, allegedly hiding an explosive device that could have killed nearly 300 people.
“A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable,” an angry and unusually blunt Obama told reporters near his vacation retreat in Hawaii.
The comments by the president and the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, suggested that the lack of information-sharing that plagued the U.S. intelligence community before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks still persists.
“It is now clear to us that there are bits and pieces of information that were in the possession of the U.S. government in advance . . . that, had they been assessed and correlated, could have led to a much broader picture and allowed us to disrupt the attack,” the official said. “Or certainly to know much more about the alleged attacker in such a way as to ensure that he was on . . . a no-fly list.”
The information, the official said, “was in some instances about the individual in question and his plans, some of it was about Al Qaeda and its plans, some of it was about potential attacks during the holiday.”
“It was not obvious or readily apparent that all of it spoke to this attack -- but in fact, we believe it did,” he said.
Obama on Tuesday criticized unspecified U.S. counter-terrorism and domestic security agencies for failing to act more vigorously on information that the father of suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had given the U.S. Embassy in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, six weeks before the botched attack.
U.S. intelligence officials said the information provided by the father, a respected banker, described Abdulmutallab as dangerously radicalized and involved with militants in Yemen, a major center of Al Qaeda activity.
Obama also hinted that U.S. intelligence agencies had either missed or ignored other clues that accumulated before Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam with a valid U.S. visa and a packet of military-grade explosives allegedly concealed in his clothing.
“Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together,” Obama said. “Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged.
“The warning signs would have triggered red flags,” he said, “and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
In an apparent malfunction, the packet of PETN explosive caught fire, and Abdulmutallab was subdued by Detroit-bound passengers and crew members.
On the question of potential red flags, the senior administration official said the president’s comments “had to do with information that was in possession of the government at the time that spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some plans of Al Qaeda were.”
Two other U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said the intelligence-sharing lapse involved a report the CIA prepared based on information from Abdulmutallab’s father.
That report was not shared with the broader security community for follow-up assessment or for consideration of his name being placed on the watch list.
“It contained information that potentially could have gotten this guy added to the no-fly list, and could very well have prevented this attack,” according to one of the officials.
The second official said the intelligence community had been tracking an unspecified Nigerian since August, but did not have enough information to identify him as Abdulmutallab or to connect him to any plot.
“There are a lot of Nigerians out there,” the official said. “The notion that there was some magic piece of intelligence that could have put him on the watch list that wasn’t shared just isn’t correct.”
The CIA declined to comment on whether the agency withheld any kind of report or cable from the Nigeria station regarding Abdulmutallab, although one official said that “all of the key information was passed along.”
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said the agency was reviewing what its case officers and analysts did to see what might have gone wrong.
“We learned of Abdulmutallab in November, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him. We did not have his name before then,” Gimigliano said.
“Also in November, we worked with the embassy to ensure he was in the government’s terrorist database -- including mention of his possible extremist connections in Yemen. We also forwarded key biographical information about him to the National Counterterrorism Center.
“This agency, like others in our government, is reviewing all data to which it had access -- not just what we ourselves may have collected -- to determine if more could have been done to stop Abdulmutallab,” Gimigliano said.
Tuesday marked the second straight day in which Obama spoke out -- in increasingly sharp terms -- after initially leaving administration officials to respond to the incident. Republicans have been particularly critical of what they said was the president’s failure to lead.
The perception problem was compounded by comments Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made over the weekend that were seen as suggesting the security system had worked effectively -- a position she disavowed Monday.
The senior administration official said Obama decided to speak out again because he had received information that suggested serious deficiencies in the way U.S. agencies shared information about terrorist threats.
An extensive revamping of the intelligence system in the wake of Sept. 11 was supposed to have averted such communication lapses.
As reviews of the episode proceed, finger-pointing is likely to intensify -- not only within the government but between Democrats and Republicans.
GOP leaders, including New York Rep. Peter T. King of the House Homeland Security Committee, have accused the administration of not doing enough to ensure the safety of air travelers or to counter the growth of Al Qaeda.
Democrats and administration officials, in response, have blamed the Republicans for saddling the Obama White House with a welter of counter-terrorism problems, including a systemic inability to generate one system of interconnected computers that would flag suspected militants.
Obama ordered that preliminary reports on two reviews -- regarding problems in the air travel screening system and the terrorist watch list -- be provided to the White House by Thursday.
“The reviews I’ve ordered will surely tell us more. But what already is apparent is that there was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security,” Obama said.
“We need to learn from this episode and act quickly to fix the flaws in our system, because our security is at stake and lives are at stake.
“We’ve achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks,” Obama added.
“But it’s becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.”