The White House has issued a report admitting it failed to "connect the dots" to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a U.S.-bound plane under orders from al Qaeda to blow up the Christmas Day Northwest flight 253 and 290 onboard.
The report, released Thursday, also reverses a President Obama assertion that Abdulmutallab was an "isolated" terrorist and an assurance from his Homeland Security secretary that "the system worked" Christmas Day.
The report said the CIA and the National Counter Terrorism Center, which (along with other agencies) “nominates” names for various terrorist watch lists, failed to search all databases once derogatory information on Abdulmutallab started coming in. Even worse, analysts searched for his name under the wrong spellings.
It was an admission of "systemic failure" by Obama missing in the Fort Hood massacre, when intelligence agencies and the FBI knew of radical behavior by assassin Nidal Malik Nasan but failed to intervene. The White House then depicted Hasan as a lone gunman, and ignored his ties to an al Qaeda cleric.
Democrats accused President George Bush of the same "connect the dots" failure after al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks.
But Bush labored under an intelligence community that had been downsized and discouraged under the presidency of Bill Clinton — so much so that his CIA director, George Tenet, wrote the agency was in "Chapter 11" by 1999.
Obama, however, oversees a Bush-revamped intel apparatus that has captured key al Qaeda operatives, foiled attacks and put the bang back into covert operations.
What went wrong in the weeks before Christmas?
The White House’s assessment said the CIA and other agencies collected data on Abdulmutallab beginning two months ago but never put the information together in a form that would have elevated his name to a U.S. no-fly list.
"The dots were never connected and as a result, the problem appears to be more about a component failure to ‘connect the dots’ rather than a lack of information sharing," said White House report report, written by John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terror adviser.
In other words, a problem of the FBI not talking to the CIA — a wall inherited and fixed by the Bush administration — was not the problem.
The White House report said agencies realized the growing threat of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen where Abdulmutallab was trained in explosives and evasion. But it focused that threat on the U.S. in the Persian Gulf, not the United States.
"Despite the opportunities and multiple intelligence products that noted the threat AQAP could pose to the homeland, the different pieces of the puzzle were never brought together. In this case the dots were never connected," it said.
The report laid blame right at the door of Obama’s national security counter-terrorism staff, led by Brennan.
"The preliminary review suggests that the overlapping layers of protection within the (counter-terrorism) community failed to track this threat in a manner sufficient to ensure all leads were followed and acted upon to conclusion," it said. "In addition, the White House and the Nation Security Council staff failed to identify this gap ahead of time."
It said Adbulmutallab, who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with plastic explosives hidden in his underwear, was included in a huge Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). But he was not punched into a more selective no-fly roster that would have prevented him from boarding the Detroit-bound flight in Amsterdam.
"The failure to include Mr. Abdulmutalla in a watchlist is part of the overall systemic failure," the report said.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the White House report is its casual characterization of the process by which a person can be added to the “no-fly” list. It said:
Mr. Abrulmutallab did not meet the minimum derogatory standard to watchlist. Watchlisting would have required all of the available information to be fused so that the derogatory information would have been sufficient to support nomination to be watchlisted in the Terrorist Screening Database.
In effect, this report says that the system is heavily biased against “watchlisting” someone rather than seeking to protect the flying public by banning those who may be a risk.
It also begs the question of why Abdulmutallab with even some “derogatory information” was allowed to fly after purchasing a one-way ticket, with cash, and not checking any luggage.
Obama issued a directive to all intelligence agencies to tighten up the process of receiving suspect names and acting on them.
When Obama appeared at the White House to release the report, there was no reflexive attempt to blame Bush, as the president has in the past.
"First, although our intelligence community had learned a great deal about the Al Qaida affiliate in Yemen, called Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that we knew that they sought to strike the United States and that they were recruiting operatives to do so, the intelligence community did not aggressively follow up on and prioritize particular streams of intelligence related to a possible attack against the homeland," Obama said.
"This contributed to a larger failure of analysis, a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community and which together could have revealed that Abdulmutallab was planning an attack."
"Third, this in turn fed into shortcomings in the watch-listing system which resulted in this person not being placed on the no-fly list, thereby allowing him to board that plane in Amsterdam for Detroit."
The president asserted in that "the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary."
That nimbleness comes in part in how al Qaeda trains would-be murderers to hide bombs. Richard Reid concealed his plastic explosives in his shoe as he boarded a Paris-to-Miami flight in December 2001. Matches failed to set off the fuze, possibly because foot perspiration deadened it.
With airport screeners paying more attention to passengers’ shoes, Abdulmutallab hid his explosive concoction in his underwear, where it went undetected until he tried to detonate it as Flight 253 descended over Michigan. Passengers and crew subdued him.
What may be required in our intelligence agencies is a new nimbleness of thought. In a briefing after the president spoke, Brennan said, “We didn’t know they had actually reached the point of launching individuals here, and we have taken that lesson and we’re all on top of it.”
Homeland Defense Secretary Janet Napolitano also seemed shocked that al Queda could innovate by using single terrorists instead of massed groups. At the same briefing that Brennan spoke, Napolitano said, “I think following up on that, not just the determination of al Qaeda and al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula but the tactic of using an individual to foment an attack as opposed to a large conspiracy or a multi-person conspiracy such as we saw on 9-11,” Napolitano added. “That is something that affects intelligence.”
"We are at war," Obama said, using a word his administration has refrained from uttering until recently. "We are at war against Al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them."
Republicans reacted by accusing Obama of saying the right things Thursday, while approving polices that weaken the country.
Those include the decision to take 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed out of the military tribunal system and bring him to New York for a civilian trial, with full constitutional rights. They also hit the Justice Department decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant and provide him an attorney.
“The President alone, as Commander-in-Chief, can shift the mindset of his Administration from one where those terrorists trying to kill Americans are treated as common criminals to one where they are held accountable for being combatants in a broader conflict," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
“While I appreciate that the president is taking action to address the weaknesses in our national security structure that led to the attempted Christmas Day airliner bombing, I believe it is time for the President to force a ‘cultural’ change within his administration and use this terrorist act as a catalyst to recommit our nation to winning the war on terrorism," he said.
Cartoon by Brett Noel