Visas of U.S.-Bound Foreigners Are Not Checked Until After Their Flights Are Airborne

U.S. officials are acknowledging that, according to the standard procedure used by federal agencies on and before Christmas Day of last year, the visa status of foreign airline passengers en route to the U.S. was not routinely checked until after their flights had already left the ground for their American destinations. According to the officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, this meant that nobody in the U.S. government—in the State Department, in the intelligence community, or at the Department of Homeland Security—checked the U.S. visa status of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged would-be transatlantic underpants bomber, until his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was already in the air.

Apart from explaining that this is the way the procedure worked prior to the attempted underpants bombing, officials have offered little in the way of explanation for why boarding airline passengers' U.S. visa statuses are not verified before, rather than after, their flights leave the ground headed for the U.S. But P. J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state and Hillary Clinton's chief spokesman, did advise Declassified on Friday that the visa verification procedure used by federal agencies for airline passengers inbound to U.S. destinations now is "being reviewed." It is unclear at present how procedures might be improved or tweaked.

Multiple Congressional committees and the Obama White House have been conducting inquiries into how U.S. agencies failed to "connect the dots" among scraps of intelligence collected by U.S. agencies in the months before Christmas. These included "bits and pieces" suggesting that the Yemeni affiliate of Al Qaeda hoped to attack a U.S. target during the 2009 Christmas holiday period, that a "Nigerian" might have been recruited for such an attack, and that an Al Qaeda operative might be named "Umar Farouk." These intelligence fragments, collected by the ultrasecret National Security Agency, were not knitted together before Christmas, nor were they collated with reports by the State Department and CIA about a warning given by Abdulmutallab's father in late November to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had disappeared and might have fallen in with Islamic "extremists" in Yemen.

According to administration and congressional staffers, post-mortem inquiries into the incident have now established that all of these pieces should have been available to "all source" intelligence analysts at both the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC—a unit set up after 9/11 to improve intelligence sharing among spies and lawmen) and the CIA. But analysts at neither agency were able to assemble the pieces into a meaningful picture before Abdulmutallab boarded his transatlantic flight. Some officials still argue that under procedures and rules that existed pre-Christmas, even if the pieces had been fully assembled, the portrait they presented would not have been alarming enough to have caused U.S. authorities to place Abdulmutallab on a "no-fly" list which would have barred him from boarding his U.S.-bound flight.

In the wake of the failed underpants attack, the Obama administration is reexamining multiple elements of the current intelligence and counterterrorism system, including how intelligence scraps are handled and what kind of standards are used for placing suspects names on no-fly lists and other U.S. government border and aviation security alert systems. Improvements or tweaks in the visa verification system are being considered as part of this reevaluation. Officials now confirm that under the procedures that were in use before and on Christmas Day, there was no standard procedure for matching U.S. visa information—indicating whether foreigners like Abdulmutallab had valid visas to enter the U.S.—with intelligence reporting on terrorism suspects, such as reporting from the U.S. Embassy in Abuja about Abdulmutallab's father's warning to embassy officials about his son.

Using unclassified terrorism watch lists prepared by intelligence agencies and the FBI, Homeland Security officials reviewed the passenger list of Abdulmutallab's flight to the U.S. before takeoff and, finding nothing on him or any other passenger, in those watch lists, cleared the plane to takeoff. Under then existing procedures, as the plane crossed the Atlantic, Homeland Security made additional checks, which led to discovery of State Department computer data showing that while Abdulmutallab had a valid U.S. visa, his father had also warned the U.S. Embassy in Abuja about his son's involvement with extremists. Upon discovery of this data entry, Homeland Security officials then went into a secret room where they can get access to the NCTC's classified TIDE system; when they discovered that Abdulmutallab was listed in that database as a possible terrorist suspect, instructions were issued to border officials in Detroit to subject him to "secondary screening" when he landed. But he tried to set off his underpants bomb while his flight was still in the air.

A senior Obama administration official acknowledged: "Main State [State Dept. HQ] and the embassy (despite the first database search with the incorrect spelling at the embassy) did not focus on the existence of the visa. The problem was not the misspelling but the system as it was designed prior to Dec. 25. At post, at Main State, and at the NCTC, the system did not require anyone to focus on the existence of the visa." The official acknowledged that, as the system up until Christmas had been designed to work, the first point at which Abdulmutallab's visa status was examined was by Homeland Security when the flight was already in the air.