U.S. Agencies Looked Closely at Yemen-Based Imam's Contacts─But Couldn't Identify Potential Underpants Bomber

Following the arrest of accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, U.S. intelligence agencies launched a detailed review of "raw" intelligence they had collected on Anwar Al-Awlaki, the American-born, English-speaking, Yemen-based jihadist imam whom Hasan had consulted for religious guidance in the months before the deadly rampage at Fort Hood. One purpose was to examine whether Awlaki might have been in contact with other individuals planning attacks on the U.S. But American officials were unable to fully identify at least one person they knew had been in touch with Awlaki─a person who was only positively identified by U.S. authorities after he tried to set off a bomb in his underpants while flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.

U.S. intelligence officials now acknowledge that, when they looked back again after the Christmas Day incident at raw intelligence reports collected on Awlaki, they found at least two reporting streams which they now believe show contacts between the fiery cleric and the alleged underpants attacker, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The officials say that one or more reports, perhaps dating back to the end of last summer, indicated that Awlaki may have been a party to one or more messages, believed to have been intercepted by the National Security Agency, in which Al Qaeda militants discussed using an unnamed Nigerian in an attack during the 2009 holiday season. As we reported over the weekend, prior to the Christmas underpants attack, NSA also intercepted communications between a phone used by Awlaki and someone now believed to have been Abdulmutallab.

The principal post-Fort Hood reviews of intelligence on Awlaki is believed to have been conducted by the National Counterterrorism Center, a unit of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was set up after 9/11 expressly to ensure that intelligence reporting on terrorist threats and plots was shared rapidly with U.S. agencies who might be able to help thwart impending attacks. Although its personnel were involved in reporting on a Nov. 19 meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, at which Abdulmutallab's father, a wealthy Nigerian banker, asked U.S. Embassy officials for help in locating his son─whom he feared was hanging out with "extremists" in Yemen─intelligence sources said the CIA's involvement in the post-Fort Hood review of intelligence on Awlaki would have been limited, circumscribed by rules prohibiting the agency from spying on American citizens like Awlaki, who was born in the United States

In the wake of the Fort Hood shootings, intelligence and law-enforcement officials discovered that not only had U.S. intelligence─presumably the National Security Agency─intercepted a series of e-mails between Awlaki and the Hasan but that the FBI and two antiterrorism task forces had examined the e-mails in the months before the attack─and deemed them innocuous. Although the Hasan-Awlaki e-mails are still being treated by the government as highly classified, people involved in investigating how the government handled intelligence relating to Major Hasan say that, in light of the Fort Hood attack, the e-mails seem quite incriminating in hindsight as they showed some animus on Hasan's part towards U.S. government policy.

In TV appearances Sunday, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said that while there had been "lapses" and errors in the sharing of intelligence and clues about Abdulmutallab, "There is no smoking gun ...There was no single piece of intelligence that said, 'this guy is going to get on a plane.' "

A U.S. intelligence official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a politically sensitive issue, told NEWSWEEK: "Everyone understood─and understands─the importance of Awlaki. No question about that. As the White House itself has noted, there was no clear link between Awlaki and Abdulmutallab. That was the problem. There were only vague 'bits and pieces.' When you know the answer, as everyone does now, you can go back and draw connections that were, at the time, anything but apparent. Even when you create a clearinghouse for information like NCTC, and─as John Brennan said publicly─information is shared, it's not easy, in the murky world of terrorism, to find patterns. But that's the job."