British Authorities Didn't Inform U.S. That Alleged Underpants Bomber Had Been Refused U.K. Visa

The British government never informed U.S. authorities that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of attempting to bomb Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, had been refused a visa to enter Britain last May, according to official sources on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this week, Alan Johnson, who as the U.K.'s home secretary is the elected politician most directly responsible for immigration and national security, confirmed that Abdulmutallab had once possessed a valid visa to study in Britain, where he attended prestigious University College London. Johnson said that when Abdulmutallab applied earlier this year for a fresh student visa, his application was rejected. According to official sources who asked for anonymity, the application was turned down because Abdulmutallab was suspected of attempting immigration fraud, in that the school he said he wanted to attend in the United Kingdom was known to authorities as a dubious or bogus institution frequently used by foreigners trying to scam their way into Britain.

Johnson told the BBC that after Abdulmutallab's May 2009 visa application was turned down, the Nigerian's name automatically went on a "U.K. watch list" of people who were not allowed to enter Britain. He also said that British policy was to "ensure that all of our information is shared with our U.S. colleagues." He added that he would be "very surprised if there was a hiccup here."

However, according to sources on both sides of the Atlantic who are familiar with investigations into Abdulmutallab, there was indeed a "hiccup" in U.S.-U.K. information exchanges. In fact, due to British government rules, the sources say, the British government's denial of Abdulmutallab's visa, and its watch-listing of him, was not reported to authorities in Washington, D.C. The reason: it is normal British government policy not to share with foreign governments, including the U.S., information about U.K. visa decisions in which denials were based on a suspicion of immigration fraud. Had the denial been based on security or intelligence considerations—for instance, if British intelligence had reported that Abdulmutallab had been involved with known terrorists or other extremists—then this information would automatically have been shared with U.S. intelligence agencies. Normally those U.S. groups work in close partnership with their U.K. partners: the domestic intelligence service known as MI5 and the foreign intelligence agency known as MI6. But because the denial and watch-listing stemmed from a case of suspected immigration fraud, this information, according to current U.K. government policy, was not passed on to the U.S.

The disclosure that the U.K. did not forward to the U.S. information that could have raised questions about Abdulmutallab and might have affected his U.S. visa status is yet another factor likely to add to the recriminations and investigations over how intelligence and security agencies failed to put together clues that could have stopped Abdulmutallab before he allegedly undertook his unsuccessful airplane-bombing mission. President Obama has launched major inquiries and has vowed to hold U.S. officials accountable for possible lapses; his aides have said that they now know that domestic agencies had "bits and pieces" of intelligence on Abdulmutallab and potential Yemen-based terror plots that, had they been assembled properly, might have enabled U.S. authorities to keep Abdulmutallab from boarding his flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic also say that before he allegedly attempted the bombing, Abdulmutallab was not otherwise listed in the records of British intelligence as a potential security threat. One source familiar with U.K. intelligence operations notes that it is surprising that MI5 or the Special Branch, a Scotland Yard division that is supposed to monitor political extremism, did not pay some attention to him, looking for extremist connections, considering that he was head of the Islamic Students Society when he attended University College. But U.S. sources say they had no input on Abdulmutallab from the U.K. before the attack, and some U.K. sources say simply that British agencies did not open files on him.

In the wake of Abdulmutallab's arrest, however, U.K. intelligence and security agencies have now gone back into the records of previous investigations and discovered that Abdulmutallab had indeed crossed their radar screens in the past, though apparently he was never named as a key suspect nor, from the sound of things, even ever fully identified by British agencies. Precisely what kind of information about possible radical links was buried in British intelligence files is unclear: this story in the Guardian suggests that post-Christmas investigations have turned up possible connections between Abdulmutallab and "unnamed extremists who were under MI5 surveillance suspected of criminal activities, such as fraud." British intelligence officials have said publicly that since they have become aware of the extent of Islamic extremist activity in the U.K. in the wake of 9/11, they have been so overwhelmed with information about potential plots and suspects that they have had to assess the dangers posed by potential suspects, and then rank them by priority, so that they can target people regarded as most dangerous for the closest surveillance. Not all such targeting decisions by Britain's spies have turned out well: as official U.K. inquiries determined after suicide bombers attacked London's public transport system on July 7, 2005, killing more than 50 people, U.K. agencies had collected some information involving the suicide bombers before the attacks, including surveillance pictures and even monitored conversations, but had decided that the suspects in question did not appear dangerous or important, and did not even fully establish their identities.