(Reuters) - U.S. spy agencies and the State Department had information about a Nigerian man with alleged ties to militants in Yemen before he attempted to blow up a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day.
But intelligence from a wide range of sources was not collated, prompting the White House to launch a review of what government agencies knew about the accused bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the plans of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and why their alleged plot was not uncovered in advance.
About four months before the attempted bombing on December 25, the NSA intercepted telephone conversations in which the leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula talked about the possibility of using an unidentified “Nigerian” bomber in an attack, according to intelligence officials. John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on counterterrorism, said the intercepts were shared with the National Counterterrorism Center.
The CIA first learned of Abdulmutallab on November 19, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja and sought help in finding him, according to an agency spokesman. The agency said it 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.
Critics say the CIA should have done more to flag the intelligence, but a U.S. intelligence official said Abdulmutallab’s father never said that his son “was a terrorist” or was planning an attack.
Telephone intercepts and biographical information from the NSA and the CIA were shared with the center, which was established in 2004 to serve as the main repository for counterterrorism intelligence gathered by more than 16 agencies. Critics say the center did not “connect the dots” as it was designed to do, and they have called on the White House to determine why the information fell through the cracks.
Pieces of information started streaming in during the summer and fall about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s plans to carry out attacks, but officials said there was not enough intelligence available to identify Abdulmutallab. The Director of National Intelligence is, ultimately, responsible for integrating foreign, military and domestic intelligence. For months, DNI Director Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta have waged a behind-the-scenes turf battle over Blair’s oversight role, but the White House and intelligence officials say the DNI, the CIA and other intelligence agencies shared information as they were supposed to. Some lawmakers contend that Blair does not have enough authority to do his job.
U.S. diplomats took part in the November 19 meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father in Abuja and forwarded the information by unclassified cable to the National Counterterrorism Center on November 20. But officials said the information was deemed insufficient to revoke Abdulmutallab’s U.S. visa.
Department officials argue that they generally rely on an interagency screening system to advise if visas should be revoked on security-related grounds, and that no such recommendation was made in this case.
Critics also say the State Department should have been alert to the threat after Britain denied Abdulmutallab a student visa to attend a bogus institution. U.S. officials say British authorities never informed them that the visa was denied, although they describe cooperation between the two countries since the incident as “seamless.”
In late August and early September, White House counterterrorism officials received intelligence about al Qaeda’s use of the explosive PETN, known as pentaerythritol, sewn into the undergarments of would-be bombers, similar to the device used months later by Abdulmutallab, officials said.
The intelligence followed the al Qaeda’s attempted assassination on August 27 of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who heads Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism campaign.
Brennan, who visited Saudi Arabia less than a week after the attack, said the United States worked with the Saudis to gather intelligence about al Qaeda’s use of PETN but added: “There was nothing in that assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that indicated aviation was a target.”
Reporting by Adam Entous and Andrew Quinn in Washington; editing by Patricia Wilson and Jackie Frank