Reports, Intercepts Suggested Attack Preparations; Multiple Agencies Had Warning
By EVAN PEREZ, JAY SOLOMON and SIOBHAN GORMANWASHINGTON -- The U.S. had multiple pieces of information about alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, according to senior U.S. officials, including intelligence reports and communications intercepts suggesting a Nigerian was being prepped for a terror strike by al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
The intercepts were collected piecemeal by the National Security Agency, which has been monitoring al Qaeda militants in that country, including former Guantanamo detainees believed to be leaders there.
In addition, the father of Mr. Abdulmutallab met with the Central Intelligence Agency at the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, Nov. 19, and told of his son's likely radicalization, U.S. officials say. That led to a broader gathering of agencies the next day, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department, in which the information was shared, a U.S. official said.
But U.S. officials said it isn't clear whether intelligence officials in Washington charged with coordinating such intelligence activities effectively distributed the information gathered in Nigeria.
President Obama on Tuesday described these lapses in general terms during a sweeping broadside aimed at his government's intelligence services. Citing a "potential catastrophic breach," he said the warning signs, if heeded, would have prevented the Christmas Day attempted bombing on a Detroit-bound airplane.
"A systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable," the president said, referencing "a mix of human and systemic failure." In his comments, the president cited information "that could have and should have been pieced together."
Officials familiar with a review ordered by Mr. Obama say the connections aren't obvious, except in hindsight, and that there doesn't appear to be a single clear warning that should have set off alarms. But if the information had been brought together before Christmas, Mr. Abdulmutallab likely would have been put on a no-fly list and kept off the plane he tried to destroy, the president said.
U.S. and Yemeni authorities said they are investigating whether the bomb plot was hatched by the former Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Yemen, the claimed source of the attack. That development is likely to hinder the Obama administration's effort to release detainees as it attempts to close the prison.
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It has already set off a round of finger pointing among multiple U.S. agencies still stinging from 9/11 and Iraq-related intelligence failures. According to officials, the NCTC has complained that the CIA didn't provide all the information they had, such as where Mr. Abdulmutallab attended college, while the agencies have said that the counterterrorism center had what it needed to properly assess the threat.
Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NCTC, said in a written statement that despite improvements to information sharing, "it is clear that gaps remain, and they must be fixed." The NSA didn't respond immediately to requests for comment.
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said the agency first learned of Mr. Abdulmutallab in November, when his father came to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. He said the agency helped place the Nigerian in the government's terrorist database, including his extremist connections in Yemen, and also forwarded biographical information to the NCTC.
The errors could prove a political problem for Mr. Obama, who spoke for the second day running about the attack, after three days of silence. Over the weekend, other administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, argued that air-security systems had worked in the attack's aftermath. Campaign consultants for potential Republican presidential challengers in 2012 have been waiting for an opportunity to paint the president as a soft on terrorism.
A senior administration official said Mr. Obama's Tuesday statement was prompted by a conference call with Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, and other top security officials. The administration's review had uncovered existing "bits and pieces" of information, some of it "incomplete or partial in nature," that taken together constituted an intelligence failure. That included information about the suspect's thinking and his plans, about al Qaeda and its plans, and about potential attacks over the holidays.
The officials said the president stands behind Ms. Napolitano and that her job is secure. A preliminary review ordered by Mr. Obama is due Thursday.
It is rare for a president to publicly reprimand intelligence agencies, particularly when he is relying on them to prosecute two wars. Tuesday's scolding will likely compound an already tense relationship.
The failure to detect the plot out of Yemen is focusing attention on the links between al Qaeda's operations there and the apparently pivotal role in the group played by former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Several detainees who joined "al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" -- the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen that Monday claimed responsibility for the bombing attempt -- were released under the Bush administration and repatriated to Saudi Arabia. Within a year, many had slipped into Yemen and joined al Qaeda. Some terrorism experts said the Yemen branch was of little consequence until the arrival of the Saudi Guantanamo Bay veterans.
Former Bush administration officials acknowledged Tuesday the concern that detainees released under their watch could have been involved in the plot. But they said the decision was the best of imperfect options.
"It's a serious issue because we were trying to find ways to return detainees to home countries and ultimately close Guantanamo while effectively addressing the long-term security threats from such detainees," said Juan Zarate, a counterterrorism official in Mr. Bush's White House.
Two leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are Said Ali al-Shihri and Muhammad al-Awfi, Saudi nationals released from Guantanamo in 2007, according to the Pentagon.
At least 11 Saudis released from Guantanamo have joined militant groups in Yemen in recent years, according to al Qaeda statements and Defense Department documents. The extent of their involvement in the plot is now a focus of the FBI's probe.
In a letter to Mr. Obama, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, three prominent supporters of closing Guantanamo, said transferring any more detainees to Yemen is too risky given the Christmas plot.
About 45 of the more than 90 Yemeni prisoners that remain at Guantanamo are cleared for release and likely would be sent home if it weren't for their nationalities, two senior U.S. officials involved in detainee issues said. If the Yemeni security situation doesn't improve, they may end up moved to a Thomson, Ill., prison the U.S. plans to use to hold detainees if Mr. Obama succeeds in closing the prison.
—Elizabeth Williamson contributed to this article. Write to Evan Perez at email@example.com, Jay Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Siobhan Gorman at email@example.com