Homeland Security Only Checked Secret Terrorist Database AFTER Underpants Bomb Flight Took Off

The Homeland Security Department unit that reviews lists of U.S.-bound airline passengers for possible terror suspects did consult a classified database that contained information on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—but only after his plane had left the ground in Amsterdam on its Christmas Day transatlantic flight to Detroit, an Obama administration official has confirmed to NEWSWEEK.

The National Targeting Center, a Virginia-based unit of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection Bureau, consulted TIDE, a classified database maintained by intelligence agencies, after Flight 253 left Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, said the official, and did discover that the databank contained information about how Abdulmutallab's father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that Abdulmutallab might be involved with extremists in Yemen. After discovering the secret database entry, the National Targeting Center issued some kind of unclassified alert to border posts instructing frontline immigration officials in Detroit to put Abdulmutallab through special screening and questioning once he landed in the U.S.

The news that Homeland Security determined after his flight had left Amsterdam that he should be subjected to additional inspection was first reported Thursday in this story by the Los Angeles Times. However, the Times's story does not disclose precise details of how and where the National Targeting Center found the information that led them to single out Abdulmutallab for additional scrutiny once his flight landed.

An administration official described in some detail to NEWSWEEK how events unfolded: "As we have indicated before, there were bits and pieces of information about Abdulmutallab available in a variety of areas in the system prior to December 25. There was no new information that emerged when the plane was in the air. All that happened is Customs and Border Protection followed its normal procedures and checks as it prepared for arriving passengers and by doing so they accessed the suspect's TIDE-based record, which is why they were going to ask him a few additional questions after he landed before allowing him admission into the country and why they didn't stop him in Amsterdam first. Officials wouldn't have pulled him out for secondary screening or prevented him from flying in Amsterdam because, as has been widely reported, Abdulmutallab was not on the selectee, no-fly or even the terror watch list, and that is of course one of the failures the President has so strongly criticized."

As Declassified reported last week, the National Targeting Center did review the passenger list of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day before the plane took off from Amsterdam and gave the airline and Dutch authorities clearance for the plane to depart to the U.S. U.S. officials told NEWSWEEK that when reviewing the passenger lists of U.S.-bound international flights, the lists are not received by U.S. authorities until 30 minutes before a plane's scheduled departure time. As a result, while the lists are compared to unclassified watch-list databases in that 30-minute period—including a "no fly list" and a list of "selectees" targeted for extra preflight screening—before takeoff they are not routinely compared against TIDE, which, because it is classified, is more awkward for list vetters to access because the relevant equipment is contained in a secret room.

Once flights are in the air, officials now say, additional checks are made of passenger lists, which do include checking names against TIDE via the secret room. The information gathered in flight is then used to craft advisories that are sent to border posts recommending that specific passengers receive additional scrutiny when they arrive at a U.S. port of entry. This is what happened with Abdulmutallab.