Published January 07, 2010
Airport officials in Amsterdam did not have enough information to pull the suspect in the Christmas Day bomb plot aside for additional screening before he departed for the United States, an administration official said Thursday, downplaying reports that U.S. customs officials were preparing to scrutinize him once he landed.
The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Thursday that officials flagged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as someone who should go through additional security screening in the United States. The department said his potential ties to terrorists came up in a routine check of passengers en route to the United States.
The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the development, wrote that security officials "learned" of the link while he was in the air.
But the administration official said "no new information" emerged when the plane was in the air. Rather, the official said customs officials followed normal procedure in checking incoming passengers' names against the massive terror database of more than a half-million names. That's where the suspect's name showed up.
"They were going to ask him a few additional questions after he landed before allowing him admission into the country," the official said.
The official said that even if U.S. officials saw the suspect's name on the database beforehand, Amsterdam officials still wouldn't have pulled him aside because he was not on the no-fly list or another list requiring additional screening.
"That is of course one of the failures the president has so strongly criticized," the official said, referring to President Obama's claim that the suspect should have been on the no-fly list all along based on available intelligence that had not been pieced together.
The White House on Thursday plans to make public the declassified account of the near catastrophe on Christmas Day, and Obama was to address Americans about its findings and recommendations. Obama, too, was to reveal new steps intended to thwart terrorist attacks, as he promised earlier in the week.
In an interview published Thursday in USA Today, White House national security adviser James Jones said Obama "is legitimately and correctly alarmed that things that were available, bits of information that were available, patterns of behavior that were available, were not acted on."
"That's two strikes," he was quoted as saying, referring to the failed Northwest jet attack and the shooting massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in November. The Army base attack left 13 dead after officials failed to act on intelligence identifying suspected gunman Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan as a threat to fellow soldiers.
Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, told the paper that Obama "certainly doesn't want that third strike, and neither does anybody else."
Elaborating, Jones said, "The man on the street ... will be surprised that these correlations weren't made" between clues pointing toward a threat from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Even though the 23-year-old Nigerian man was in a database of possible terrorists, he managed to fly from Nigeria through Amsterdam to Detroit with an explosive concealed on his body. He said Americans will feel a "certain shock" reading the report.
No firings over the December security debacle are expected -- for now, at least.
For an administration rocked by the breach of security, the day was meant to be a pivot point from an incident that has dominated attention.
"In many ways, this will be the close of this part of the investigation," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.
For nearly the last two weeks, Obama and his team have spent enormous time responding to the crisis. The White House is eager to start putting public attention back to its efforts to expand health care and boost the economy, while careful to say Obama will be monitoring security improvements. Abdulmutallab was indicted Wednesday on charges of attempted murder and other crimes for trying to blow up an airliner.
His father had warned U.S. officials that Abdulmutallab had drifted into extremism in the Al Qaeda hotbed of Yemen but that threat was never identified fully by intelligence officials, a breakdown that has drawn intense, candid criticism from the president himself.
Still, even with whatever details and improvements are revealed Thursday, questions will remain. Senate committees plan hearings later this month.
And it remains unclear whether any top officials from Obama's not-quite-year-old administration will be fired over the debacle.
"I don't know what the final outcome in terms of hiring and firing will be," Gibbs said.
He said no personnel announcements were expected on Thursday.
Two legislative officials familiar with intelligence matters, one in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate, said Wednesday that it appeared unlikely that anyone in the Obama administration would be fired over the incident. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Obama's comments Thursday will be his sixth on the incident, encompassing two statements to reporters during his Hawaii vacation and two more from the White House, a written statement on New Year's Eve and his radio address last weekend.
The president blistered the intelligence community earlier this week, saying flatly that the government had enough information to uncover the plot and disrupt the attack. "It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had," Obama said.
Charlie Allen, the former head of collection at CIA, said the government suffers from a shortage of experienced intelligence analysts.
Analysts take pieces of information -- like the disparate threads available before Christmas -- look at them, correlate them, and then make a "very strong leap in order to reach a decision," Allen said. "It takes experience."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.