Exclusive: Intelligence Agencies Reported Last Fall on Threat of Bombs Hidden Under Clothing

Two intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security circulated a paper within the government last fall that examined in some detail the threats that bombs secreted in clothing─or inside someone's body cavities─might pose to aviation security, NEWSWEEK has learned from U.S. national-security officials who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information.

The report, which was prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center in conjunction with Homeland Security and the CIA, did not specifically warn that such bombing tactics would be used in any particular kind of forthcoming attack, such as the attempted Christmas Day underpants bombing of a transatlantic airliner. Nor did it even specifically mention "underpants," the officials said.

Rather, one principal point of discussion in the document was whether the detonation of a bomb hidden in clothing on an airliner would have a different explosive effect than the detonation of a bomb secreted in a body cavity under similar circumstances. Also, the document discussed which passenger screening techniques and machines might be effective at detecting such bombs depending upon how or where they are concealed.

The disclosure that a government paper examining the risks of bombs hidden in clothing was circulated several months ago could fuel new questions about how alert and prepared the intelligence and security agencies, and Obama administration policymakers, were for the type of attack that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted on Christmas Day. Over the weekend, President Obama declared that the plot and bomb most likely were crafted by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen- and Saudi-based affiliate of the Islamic terror network.

According to the national-security officials, the body-bomb paper was circulated within the government approximately two months ago, around the time U.S. agencies began receiving information raising questions about initial forensic information that had been received earlier regarding the composition of a bomb that had been used in an attempt last August to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism czar.

Original intelligence and news reporting on the Nayef bombing suggested that the attacker, a Saudi militant named Abdullah Hasan Tali al-Asiri, had tried to attack the prince with a device secreted in his anal cavity. (After fleeing Saudi Arabia, Asiri had taken refuge in Yemen, which is where investigators believe he acquired the bomb he used in the attack on the Saudi prince.) Later, however, the Saudis determined that Asiri had hidden the bomb in his underwear. As we reported over the weekend, Nayef himself visited the White House in October to brief Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, on the underpants bombing technique. Investigators looking into the Christmas Day underpants bombing attempt told Declassified they now believe it is likely that the same bombmaker crafted the devices allegedly carried by both Asiri and Abdulmutallab according to several U.S. counterterrorism officials.

Administration officials said that information provided by Nayef to the White House was circulated to appropriate U.S. agencies. The NCTC-CIA-DHS paper appears to have been produced after the agencies had a chance to digest Nayef's information.

According to national-security officials, the paper suggested that a bomb in a body cavity like the anus was less likely to jeopardize the safety of an aircraft than a bomb in someones' clothing. The reasoning: much of the force of a bomb in a body cavity would be absorbed by exploding body tissue, likely killing the bomber and soiling people near him but causing little structural damage to a plane which might have been carrying them. By contrast, the explosive force of a bomb in clothing but outside any body cavity would be more likely to cause potentially catastrophic damage to an airplane if it was detonated during the flight.

The officials added that the paper also discussed the problems such bomb designs might pose for existing airport security procedures. The officials said that experts believed that while enhanced security measures and devices such as pat-down searches and body scanners─which were not in widespread use last fall but have been rushed into effect since the underpants bombing attempt─in many or most cases could successfully spot bombs secreted under clothing. However, such equipment or procedures might be considerably less effective in spotting bombs hidden inside body cavities.

The National Counterterrorism Center had no comment on its involvement in this document, and the CIA had no immediate comment. A Homeland Security Department official admitted to NEWSWEEK on the condition of anonymity that they had received detailed information about the Nayef bombing: "DHS was briefed on the event and techniques used. Of course this is the kind of information we would use to inform our security posture. "