(Reuters) - The U.S. government had enough information about a Nigerian man and an al Qaeda’s cell in Yemen to potentially disrupt their alleged plot to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day, a White House review found.
Here’s what U.S. spy agencies and the State Department knew about the accused bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the growing threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the months before the attempted December 25 bombing:
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 flow of intelligence picked up between mid-October and late December, but U.S. counterterrorism officials learned as early as August how effective al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had become at concealing the explosive PETN, known as pentaerythritol, in the undergarments of would-be suicide bombers.
The intelligence stemmed from 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.”
The PETN hidden in Abdulmutallab’s underwear failed to detonate.
The CIA first learned of Abdulmutallab on November 18, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, to voice concerns that his son may have come under the influence of militants and had planned to travel to Yemen.
The CIA 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.
The White House said: “Though this information alone could not predict Mr. Abdulmutallab’s eventual involvement in the attempted 25 December attack, it provided an opportunity to link information on him with earlier intelligence reports that contained fragmentary information.”
U.S. diplomats also took part in the November 18 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.”
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE AND THE NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER
The Director of National Intelligence is ultimately responsible for integrating foreign, military and domestic intelligence. For months, DNI Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta have waged a behind-the-scenes turf battle over Blair’s role, but the White House and intelligence officials say the DNI, the CIA and other intelligence agencies shared information as they were supposed to.
Telephone intercepts and biographical information from the NSA and the CIA were shared with the National Counterterrorism 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. (Reporting by Adam Entous and Andrew Quinn in Washington; editing by Patricia Wilson and Eric Beech)