What the CIA Did and Didn't Know About Alleged Underpants Bomber

SITE Intelligence Grou
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Intelligence officials are insisting that while the Central Intelligence Agency prepared—and apparently sat on—its own cable about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab after his father visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, there was no information in that message that likely would have caused U.S. authorities to put him on a "no fly" list or that otherwise would have stopped him from boarding the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, which he allegedly tried to blow up with a bomb hidden in his underpants.

According to news reports, CIA personnel were involved in discussions with Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, Umar's father, when the father went to the American Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19 of this year to ask for help in locating and retrieving his son. The next day, according to U.S. national security officials, embassy officials, including representatives of the CIA and other agencies involved in counterterrorism operations, met to discuss the father's information.

As a result of this meeting, as we reported on Monday, a cable was sent by the embassy into Visas Viper, a database used by the State Department to track foreigners who hold or apply for U.S. visas. This cable noted the father's concern that his son "may be involved with Yemeni based [Islamic] Extremists." Information from this cable was subsequently entered into the government's broadest classified database on terrorist suspects, known as TIDE, which is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a unit of the National Intelligence Director's office that was set up after 9/11 to ensure that counterterrorism information was rapidly shared among relevant U.S. agencies.

According to an intelligence official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, the Viper cable gave Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's full name and passport number. The cable did not contain any direct accusation or suggestion from the father that his son either had been involved in or was about to become involved in any act of terrorism, according to several U.S. officials, all of whom asked for anonymity due to the continuing investigation.

Around the same time the embassy sent out this cable, the CIA station in Abuja sent its own separate cable back to agency headquarters at Langley, Va., on the meeting with the elder Mutallab. "At no time did the father claim his son was a terrorist or was planning an attack on the United States. Not at all," an intelligence official told NEWSWEEK. By contrast, the official noted, the father "said his son was considering a multi-year course in Yemen in Islamic law—hardly the precursor to an imminent assault." According to the official, CIA's own cable on the meeting with the father included details like this, which arguably at the time would have looked exculpatory. The CIA, according to a National Security source, did not circulate a copy of its own report about the meeting thoroughly around U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies until weeks after it was sent from Nigeria to Langley.

An intelligence official noted that analysts at the NCTC, which maintains the TIDE database, did have access to the raw CIA cable about the meeting with the father at about the same time the message was sent to CIA HQ; it is not clear at this point what the NCTC analysts did with the cable, though officials have said that the principal entry in the TIDE database was based on the State Department's Visas Viper cable, not the CIA cable. In any case, given that the CIA cable did not report that Abdulmutallab was directly invovled with terrorists, and in fact contained information suggesting his disappearance to Yemen could have been innocent, officials still maintain that there was nothing in the CIA report that should—or, under rules that then existed, could—have triggered a move to put Abdulmutallab on U.S. no-fly or other transportation watchlists. In the wake of President Obama's declaration of his determination to get to the bottom of alleged intelligence failures, however, an intelligence official acknowledged that the CIA cable "perhaps, ultimately should have been disseminated in a more formal way. It could well be declassified in some form before all this is over. There's really nothing mysterious or magical about it."

The intelligence official added: "While this is the season for second-guessing and finger-pointing, I have not seen anything to come from the meeting in Abuja—including the cable—that suddenly would have rocketed Abdulmutallab to the no-fly list. You had a young man who was becoming increasingly pious and was turning his back on his family's wealthy lifestyle. That alone makes him neither St. Francis nor a dead-eyed killer. Every piece of data, of course, looks different when you know the answer, as everyone does now."