WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence agencies had enough “bits and pieces” of information to thwart the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing, a senior administration official said Tuesday, but they failed to properly analyze and share it.
Instead, what President Barack Obama called a potentially catastrophic “mix of human and systemic failures” allowed the 23-year-old Nigerian suspect to board a U.S.-bound airliner, allegedly with an explosive device that could have killed nearly 300 people.
“A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama told reporters near his vacation retreat in Hawaii.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of al-Qaida there were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack. The newspaper said the information did not include the name of the Nigerian.
The comments by the president and a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, suggested the lack of information sharing that plagued the U.S. intelligence community before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still persists.
“It is now clear to us that there are bits and pieces of information that were in the possession of the U.S. government in advance … that, had they been assessed and correlated, could have led to a much broader picture and allowed us to disrupt the attack,” the senior administration official said. “Or certainly to know much more about the alleged attacker in such a way as to ensure that he was on … a no-fly list.”
The information, the official said, “was in some instances about the individual in question and his plans, some of it was about al-Qaida and its plans, some of it was about potential attacks during the holiday. It was not obvious or readily apparent that all of it spoke to this attack – but in fact, we believe it did.”
Obama on Tuesday criticized unspecified U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security agencies for failing to act more vigorously on information that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father, a respected Nigerian banker, provided to the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Abuja six weeks before the attacks.
U.S. intelligence officials said the father’s information described Abdulmutallab as dangerously radicalized and involved with militants in Yemen, a major center of al-Qaida activity.
The president also hinted that U.S. intelligence agencies either missed or ignored other clues that had accumulated before Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam with a valid U.S. visa and a packet of military-grade explosives concealed in his clothing.
“Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together,” Obama said. “Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged.
“The warning signs would have triggered red flags,“ he said, “and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.“
In an apparent malfunction of the explosive device, the would-be attacker’s packet of PETN caught fire, and he was subdued by passengers and crew.
Two other U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said the intelligence-sharing lapse involved a report that the CIA prepared based on information from Abdulmutallab’s father. That report was not shared with the broader security community for follow-up assessment or consideration of placing his name on the watch list.
One official said the intelligence community had been tracking an unspecified Nigerian since August, but did not have enough information to identify him as Abdulmutallab or to connect him to any plot.
“There are a lot of Nigerians out there,” the official said. “The notion that there was some magic piece of intelligence that could have put him on the watch list that wasn’t shared just isn’t correct.”
The CIA declined to comment on whether the agency withheld any kind of report or cable from the Nigeria station regarding Abdulmutallab, although one official said “all of the key information was passed along.”
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said the agency was reviewing what its case officers and analysts did to see what might have gone wrong. “We learned of Abdulmutallab in November, when his father came to the US Embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him. We did not have his name before then,” Gimigliano said.
“Also in November, we worked with the embassy to ensure he was in the government’s terrorist database – including mention of his possible extremist connections in Yemen. We also forwarded key biographical information about him to the National Counterterrorism Center.
“This agency, like others in our government, is reviewing all data to which it had access – not just what we ourselves may have collected – to determine if more could have been done to stop Abdulmutallab.”