John Brennan: We failed on Christmas Day terrorist intelligence

In a review of the Christmas Day terrorist attempt, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan says that what should have been clear intelligence warnings fell through the cracks.

By , Staff writer

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    White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (c.) accompanied by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, briefs reporters at the White House Thursday.
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The US had enough intelligence prior to the failed attempt to destroy an airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day to indicate such a plot was under way, and to disrupt it, according to the administration review of the incident released Jan. 7. The problem was that intelligence in essence fell through the cracks.

Now the White House is ordering the US intelligence community to plaster those cracks over, by trying to make sure that there is a clear lead agency in charge of each important developing threat.

“What we want to make sure is that for each of these threads there is a lead, and that they are going to move ahead on it,” said Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan at an evening press conference following the review’s release.

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Nobody has been fired

The review did not call for drastic changes. No one was fired. No agency was called to account by name.

Instead, its overall conclusion seemed to be that intelligence agencies just need to keep doing what they are doing, only faster and in a more coherent manner.

Following the attacks of 9/11, the agencies that together make up the US intelligence community were roundly criticized for not sharing information with one another. This was not the case with the Christmas Day incident, said Mr. Brennan.

“It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we had,” he said.

Useful intelligence came two months earlier

Pieces of intelligence regarding alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab largely were collected between October and December 2009, according to a six-page summary of the review released to the public.

For instance Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father met with US Embassy officials in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 18 to discuss his concern that his son had come under the influence of dangerous extremists and had planned to travel to Yemen.

At the same time, US intelligence was focused on the possibility of imminent attacks on Americans or American interests in Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet the intelligence community did not connect these dots.

“The [counterterrorism] community failed to follow-up further on this ‘strategic warning,’ ” concludes the report summary.

Abdulmutallab’s name was included in the longest list of possible terrorist names maintained by the US, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database, maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.

But he was not added to the shorter lists of possibly more dangerous suspects, such as the no-fly list maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. That list includes about 3,400 names.

Human error allowed alleged terrorist to fly

This was due to human error, according to the review. When reviewing Abdulmutallab’s case, National Counterterrorism Center and CIA personnel did not search all available databases to uncover additional derogatory information about him.

“Nothing ‘pinged’ to keep him off the plane,” said Brennan.

In addition, “delayed dissemination of a finished intelligence report” compounded the problem, according to the review, which is silent as to what that delayed report was about.

Customs authorities in Detroit had identified Abdulmutallab as a candidate for extra screening upon arrival in the United States, however. They had run the flight manifest through the large TIDE database, and found he was on it.

“When he landed in Detroit, they were ready to question him about that ‘ping,’ ” said Brennan.

That did not happen, of course. Following his alleged attempt to ignite a bomb sewn into his clothing, the Nigerian man was taken into custody by federal authorities upon arrival.

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