Declassified report details intelligence failures leading up to failed terrorist attack

Published 8 January 2010

The report criticizes the U.S. counterterrorism (CT)community for not connecting the dots related to the Christmas Day plot; “Unfortunately, despite several opportunities that might have allowed the CT community to put these pieces together in this case, and despite the tireless effort and best intentions of individuals at every level of the CT community, that was not done”

The White House yesterday released a public summary detailing the counterterrorism (CT) community’s failure to stop a terrorist from boarding a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas and detonating an explosive device, despite available but discrete intelligence information.

Matthew Harwood writes that the review was conducted by John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, on the orders of President Barack Obama immediately following the botched terrorist attack by suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian national. The indictment released by the Justice Department yesterday on Tuesday charges Abdulmutallab with trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit and murder the 289 people onboard.

Although the 6-page preliminary review document begins by applauding the work of the CT community, it transitions quickly into criticizing the same CT community for not connecting the dots related to the Christmas Day plot. “Unfortunately,” the summary says, “despite several opportunities that might have allowed the CT community to put these pieces together in this case, and despite the tireless effort and best intentions of individuals at every level of the CT community, that was not done.”

Harwood writes that the report states the intelligence failures and shortcomings can be packaged into three broad categories.

First, intelligence analysts should have been able “to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence” that connected the young jihadist to an emerging terrorist plot organized by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an al Qaeda franchise based in Yemen. The summary notes that Abdulmutallab’s father had met with U.S. Embassy officers and warned them that his son may have come under the influence of extremists in Yemen. This information, the report says, “provided an opportunity to link information on him with earlier intelligence reports that contained fragmentary information.”

The report also finds that overlapping responsibilities for tracking terrorist threats between the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the CIA contributed to Abdulmutallab’s ability to board the flight on Christmas. “No single component of the CT community assumed responsibility for the threat reporting and followed it through by ensuring that all necessary steps were taken to disrupt the threat.”

In response to this failure, the review calls for a process to track terrorist threat reporting, prioritize it, and ensure analysts run down all leads until completion. The president has given this responsibility to the NCTC, according to a directive on corrective actions released at the same time as the review was.

Finally, the report calls the CT community’s inability to fuse all available data on Abdulmutallab and get his name on the No Fly List as “part of the overall systemic failure.” While his name was contained in a large database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, there was not enough derogatory information for watchlisting personnel to ban Abdulmutallab from flying.

The inability of intelligence analysts to connect the dots was not a failure of intelligence sharing however, the report maintains. “Relevant all-source analysts as well as watchlisting personnel who needed this information were not prevented from accessing it.” This finding was later voiced by Brennan during a press briefing accompanying the report’s release.

The report also notes that the State Department did not believe Abdulmutallab was in possession of a U.S. visa, which he was, because his name was misspelled in the relevant database. Regardless his visa would not have been revoked, the report explains, because the NCTC and CIA personnel responsible for watchlisting did not identify enough derogatory information to get Abdulmutallab on the No Fly List.

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