WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has so far described only in broad strokes how it will repair an intelligence system that failed to stop an attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack. This week, Congress starts pressing for specifics.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other senior security officials head to Capitol Hill for two days of hearings about how purported Nigerian Al Qaeda operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly was allowed to board a plane for Detroit armed with a bomb.
A White House report this month outlined a series of missteps, including name misspellings, ignored warnings and human oversights. But for a failed detonator and the swift action of passengers, the attack might have killed all 289 people aboard.
The administration was likely to get a dressing down for its intelligence failures starting Wednesday and was expected to discuss a number of suggested fixes. Some of those, like putting federal marshals on all 29,000 daily flights, would cost billions.
"If the answer is, 'We don't have enough money for marshals,' well, we've got to have marshals," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, whose Intelligence Committee will be holding closed-door hearings Thursday. "I know a marshal when I see a marshal, and I feel good when I see a marshal. And the Farouks of the world don't feel good when they see a marshal."
Others would cost little or nothing, like making sure the State Department temporarily suspends U.S. visas for a person when someone raises security concerns, as Abdulmutallab's father did a month before the flight.
"Clearly, some elements of our homeland defenses are not working as we need them to be. We need to find out what and why and fix them," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent lawmaker from Connecticut, whose Homeland Security panel was questioning Napolitano and others Wednesday. "It's clear that information is being shared between intelligence law enforcement and homeland security agencies but human error was made in handling that information."
Then there are the thorny questions surrounding personal privacy, which inevitably surface when the administration talks about making it easier to put people on terrorism watch lists or no-fly lists.
Authorities say Abdulmutallab was affiliated with an Al Qaeda branch in Yemen. Intelligence officials failed to recognize the threat posed by the troubled Arab country, which had been previously regarded as a menace only to U.S. targets abroad. Now, that threat has reached U.S. borders.