In response to what President Obama called a “mix of human and systemic failures” within the intelligence community leading to the failed Christmas Day airline bombing plot, the White House today announced a series of steps to thwart future plots, including revamped screening of overseas airline passengers, revamped procedures for reporting on persons holding visas, and changes to the government’s terrorist watch lists.
While the reviews are ongoing and more recommendations are expected later in the week, additional intelligence analysts are expected to be assigned to monitor and administer the computer database, which is central to tracking international terrorists, according to two senior government officials familiar with proposed reforms.
The so-called TIDE list, for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, is the central repository for more than 500,000 people suspected of some connection to international terrorism. Maintained and constantly updated by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the list is separate from the Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list, which is reserved for more serious—and potentially deadly—suspects.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect accused of hiding plastic explosives in his underpants in an effort to bring down a jetliner, was on the TIDE list but was not considered a serious enough threat to be added to the no-fly list, which would have barred him from the Detroit-bound flight. Since the Christmas Day attack, the ranks of the no-fly list have swelled, though officials would not comment on specific numbers. Yesterday, a White House spokesman said that “dozens “ had been added.
The failed plot has led to a predictable round of interagency finger-pointing over who dropped the ball. The State Department, the CIA, the National Security Agency (which spies on communications networks), the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Office of the DNI have all traded public or anonymously sourced salvos in the beltway blame game. But it breaks down to familiar camps: Field agents say that the analysis should have been better, while analysts contend they had insufficient information to make the right decisions. Obama Tuesday said it was not an intelligence collection issue but a problem of analysis.
There are several agreed-upon pieces of vital information. In November, the father of the suspect met with CIA and State Department officials at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, warning them that his son had been radicalized. Both the CIA and the State Department compiled separate reports on the interview and sent them back to Washington.
Given that Abdulmutallab’s name was added to the TIDE list but not the no-fly list, one central point of contention has been the substance and quality of the reporting from State and CIA. Some say those conducting the initial interview should have been more explicit about the credibility of the threat. Others contend that analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center should have put the pieces together and elevated warnings about Abdulmutallab.
“Based on what we know now, the State Department fully complied with the requirements set forth in the interagency process as to what should be done when information about a potential threat is known,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week. She said the department is reviewing its procedures to see if they need to be changed.
Other critics note that the State Department didn’t revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa, despite the fact that the suspect had been barred from entering the United Kingdom because he lied on a visa application. A State Department spokesman rejected those concerns yesterday, though the procedures regarding those holding U.S. visas have since been changed. “He was denied a visa because he provided false information on his visa application, the kind of thing that happens hundreds of thousands of times all over the world ... That the British denied him a visa, it was not on terrorism grounds. It was on immigration grounds,” said spokesman Ian Kelly.
The NSA, meanwhile, intercepted some type of communication several months ago, which suggested that “the Nigerian” was preparing for an attack. Translated summaries of those intercepted communications were distributed around the intelligence community, according to the New York Times. Summaries, rather than copies of the actual recordings themselves or even raw transcripts, are the preferred method of distribution by the NSA, though the agency’s refusal to share raw intelligence has frustrated some counterterrorism officials in the past. “This wasn’t an ‘information sharing’ problem as much as it was a ‘quality of the information’ problem,” says one senior official involved in the White House review, offering a different diagnosis from the president’s.
Another senior intelligence official involved in the compilation of the president’s daily briefing on national security threats says that while the plot was a serious concern, the idea that any intelligence service can stop all threats for the indefinite future is unrealistic and dangerously optimistic. “This guy probably should have been flagged, but it also shows that despite our best efforts, someone may eventually get through.”