Agencies Disagree on Whether Info on Alleged Christmas Day Bomber Would Have Led to Terror Watch-Listing

Some key U.S. intelligence officials are privately disputing the finding of a White House report that U.S. agencies had enough information about accused underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to have him placed him on a no-fly list before he boarded his Christmas Day flight to Detroit.

A major finding of the report released last Thursday stated that in the months before the attempted attack, U.S. intelligence agencies had "sufficient information" to have "uncovered and potentially disrupted" the Christmas Day attack, "including by placing Mr. Abdulmutallab on the No Fly List". Probably the most important reports that circulated within the U.S. government before Christmas involved discussions officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, held in late November with Alhaji Mutallab, Abdulmutallab's father. The elder Mutallab, a prominent Nigerian banker, sought the help of embassy officials in locating his son, who he said had disappeared and had allegedly fallen in with Islamic "extremists" in Yemen.

But in briefings with members of Congress, some U.S. intelligence agency representatives have disputed the White House finding, contending that the father's demarche to the embassy would not have been decisive in having his son watch-listed before Christmas, even if cables about the father's plea had been cross-referenced with other intelligence related to Yemen and possible Christmastime plots. "Even with his father's warnings, we understand there are conflicting accounts of whether Abdulmutallab would have met the standard for watch-listing had someone actually connected all of the dots," says a congressional official who is familiar with information the Obama administration has presented on Capitol Hill. The official adds, "So either the standard is too high or some organizations don't understand it, or both. Either way, this is a problem with serious security implications."

According to two intelligence officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, one or more representatives of the Terrorist Screening Center─an FBI-managed interagency unit that maintains and disseminates the unclassified terrorist watch-list databases used for routine screening of airline passengers─told Congress that in the center's view, had all the wisps of information the government had been fully assembled, then Abdulmutallab should well have been placed on one of the center's watch lists. These include a massive "Terrorist Screening Data Base" of more than 400,000 people, a smaller "selectee list" of around 13,000 people who are supposed to receive extra screening before being allowed aboard U.S.-bound aircraft, and an even smaller (fewer than 4,000 names) no-fly list that prohibits people named on it from getting aboard U.S.-bound flights.

However, representatives of other intelligence-community units─which, according to the two intelligence officials, included the National Counterterrorism Center and its parent agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence─advised Congress that in their view, even if their experts had been able to "connect the dots" before Christmas between all the Abdulmutallab-related nuggets in the U.S. government's possession, the standards for placing the young Nigerian on the kind of watch list that would have stopped him from getting aboard Flight 253 would not have been met. Obama administration officials now have launched a major review not only of intelligence agencies' handling of the information they had collected before the Christmas plot unfolded but also of the criteria and rules used by intelligence and security agencies to draw up terrorism watch lists. The two intelligence officials said that presently, officials rely on rules laid out in a book-size manual titled Protocol Regarding Terrorist Nominations to evaluate which names should and shouldn't be put on watch lists. This document is apparently not classified, but public distribution or inspection is prohibited because it is considered a document for official use only.

As Declassified reported earlier this week, the procedure used to place suspects on terrorism watch lists, as laid out in the protocol document, is so rigorous that even a Kenyan man who allegedly tried to murder a Danish cartoonist on New Year's Day with a hatchet and a knife was not immediately added onto a no-fly list maintained by the U.S. government. The ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, told Declassified, "When we need to debate whether an axe-wielding maniac should be on the no-fly list, it's clear our procedures are doing more to protect terrorists' rights than Americans' safety." A spokesperson for the Terrorist Screening Center had no immediate comment, and the National Intelligence Director's office and National Counterterrorism Center had no comment.