Screening, watch lists come under scrutiny as federal officials try to assuage fears
WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that the suicide bomber who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet on Christmas apparently was not part of a broader plot to attack U.S. targets and that commercial flying is safe.
The administration announced two sweeping formal reviews into the incident, and Republicans accused the government of not taking al-Qaida or the safety of air travelers seriously enough.
The incident, in which a 23-year-old Nigerian allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device as Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit prepared for landing, heightened nerves worldwide.
On Sunday, another Nigerian man aboard the same flight triggered alarm when he spent about an hour in the bathroom. Fearing another suicide bomber, the pilot asked authorities to meet the plane.
Law enforcement rushed to the scene, sirens blaring. The FBI determined that the young man was sick, not plotting to blow up the plane, one FBI official said in Washington.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the incident, which set off alarm bells amid partisan sniping at the highest levels in Washington.
On Sunday morning talk shows, Napolitano sought to reassure a jittery public, saying that commercial flying had been safe before the incident on Christmas and was even safer now because of intensified security measures that U.S. authorities and their allies have put in place.
She said the accused suicide bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, appeared to be acting alone.
After his arrest, Abdulmutallab said he had obtained a specialized explosive chemical compound and a syringe from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with the terror network.
But, Napolitano said, “Right now we have no indication that it is part of anything larger.”
She acknowledged that U.S. authorities had placed Abdulmutallab on a general counterterrorism watch list that contains about 550,000 names, which is shared with airlines and foreign security agencies. Administration officials acknowledged Abdulmutallab was placed on that list about a month ago after his father, a respected Nigerian banker, went to U.S. authorities in Nigeria with concerns about his son’s radicalization and ties to militants.
Napolitano said without specific and “credible” evidence of suspicious activity, Abdulmutallab could not be formally classified as the kind of greater security risk that would bar him from traveling to the U.S.
Republicans sharply criticized the administration. Some said that U.S. officials had failed to follow up appropriately on the father’s concerns, an action that likely would have placed him on a heightened watch list that would have either barred him from flying or subjected him to a thorough search that might have found the explosives.
“There is much to investigate here,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” “It’s amazing to me that an individual like this, who was sending out so many signals, could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.”
Other Republicans, and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, said that the administration and authorities in Europe and Africa should have done more to screen Abdulmutallab and to prevent him from getting on the plane with a package containing an easily detectable military-grade explosive known as PETN.
The reviews ordered by Obama, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on the Sunday talk shows, will focus on “why an individual with the chemical explosive he had on him could get on a plane in Amsterdam and fly into the United States,” and authorities will review all decisions about including – or omitting – Abdulmutallab’s name in various government databases related to known or suspected terrorists.
That review also will focus on the broader issue of whether appropriate policies and procedures are in place related to watch-listing, a complicated and often controversial process that involves the FBI-administered Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA and other intelligence agencies and the departments of Homeland Security and State, an administration official said.
The official also said that after Abdulmutallab’s father brought his concerns to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, “the U.S. government took action and shared the information with relevant agencies across the government,” resulting in his name being added to a database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which contains 550,000 names. He said officials will try to determine why Abdulmutallab was not included in a more refined no-fly list of 4,000 people who are barred from flights to the United States, or on the list of 15,000 people required to go through more rigorous screening before boarding.
Authorities also continued their intensive investigation into Abdulmutallab, who was released from a Detroit-area hospital and into federal custody.
One Yemen government official said that investigation could take months, given what he described as Abdulmutallab’s extensive travels.
“This guy was all over the map, not just in Yemen,” the official said.
One U.S. intelligence official said authorities are on the ground in Britain, Nigeria, Yemen and other locations, looking for clues as to how he became radicalized and what ties he might have to militants and al-Qaida operatives there. The focus, he said, continues to be Yemen, which U.S. officials consider to be a growing safe haven for al-Qaida members not only from that impoverished country, but from neighboring Saudi Arabia and around the world.
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