WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Last week’s failed plot to bomb a U.S. passenger jet has exposed lingering fissures within the U.S. intelligence community, which had information from interviews and clandestine intercepts but did not put the pieces together, officials said.
Turf wars between U.S. spy and law enforcement agencies are nothing new. But lapses that allowed a Nigerian suspect to board a Detroit-bound plane with a bomb on Christmas Day, and the finger-pointing that followed, have raised questions about sweeping changes made to improve security and intelligence- sharing after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
President Barack Obama has ordered preliminary findings by Thursday into what he described as a “systemic failure” by federal authorities for allowing the botched December 25 attack.
A senior aide said Obama would seek accountability at the highest levels, stoking fears in the intelligence community of a shake-up. Another official said the review would show “where the dots should have been connected” and why they were not.
Two officials said a focus of the White House review was what happened to intelligence after it was relayed to the National Counterterrorism Center, created in 2004 to collect, integrate and analyze the information as it is gathered.
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said spy agencies picked up important information about the suspected would-be-bomber, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and about the intentions of al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, in the months before the attempted bombing.
The intelligence trail began at least four months ago, when the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted communications between al Qaeda leaders in Yemen discussing the possibility of using a “Nigerian” bomber, according to one official briefed on the intelligence.
NO ‘MAGIC PIECE OF INTELLIGENCE’
The CIA first learned of Abdulmutallab in November, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him, a spokesman said.
The agency said it then worked with the embassy to add Abdulmutallab and his possible Yemeni contacts to the U.S. terrorism database and forwarded biographical information about him to the National Counterterrorism Center.
Although worrying, a U.S. intelligence official said the information the CIA received about Abdulmutallab was sketchy.
“Abdulmutallab’s father didn’t say his son was a terrorist, let alone planning an attack. Not at all,” the official said.
“I‘m not aware of some magic piece of intelligence that suddenly would have flagged this guy -- whose name nobody even had until November -- as a killer en route to America,” the intelligence official added.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said “restrictive” counterterrorism policies were partly to blame by discouraging authorities from placing Abdulmutallab on a “no-fly” list, or from revoking his U.S. visa.
The policies, Feinstein said, should be changed so the U.S. government can watchlist and deny visas to anyone who is “reasonably believed to be affiliated with, part of, or acting on behalf of a terrorist organization.”
Republican Representative Michael Castle singled out the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, the agency that was “designed to connect the dots on terrorism.”
“Red flags” were missed across the board, he said. Abdulmutallab had no checked luggage; he paid for his ticket with cash; and British officials had rejected his visa renewal application and had his name on their own watch list.
Some officials pointed to long-standing tensions between the CIA and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, whose office was created in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
A sweeping 2004 intelligence overhaul left gaps in authorities and responsibilities, fueling the discord, they said.
In recent months, the two agencies have sparred over a range of turf issues, including the CIA’s control over clandestine operations, according to officials, forcing the White House to intervene.
“The United States government set up NCTC -- and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- to connect the dots on terrorism,” the U.S. intelligence official said, underlining the growing fissure. “If somebody thinks it could have been done better in this case, they know where to go for answers.”
The NCTC and Blair’s office declined to comment on any rift. In a statement, Blair said information-sharing within the intelligence community had been “drastically improved” but acknowledged that gaps remained.
Editing by Peter Cooney