Terror in the Skies: Janet Napolitano Says U.S. Must Re-Examine Terror-Watch and No-Fly Lists

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano says U.S. needs to review terror policies.

ByABC News via logo
December 28, 2009, 7:17 AM

Dec. 28, 2009— -- Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano flip-flopped today on the government's performance in the Christmas Day Northwest Airlines alleged terror attack, saying changes need to be made to the passenger screening system.

Just a day earlier, she told ABC News that the "system has worked really very, very smoothly over thecourse of the past several days."

Within hours of Napolitano reversing herself, President Obama said he ordered a review of procedures and bolstering of security measures.

In addition, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Penninsula issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attempted airliner attack. It said the botched bombing was in retaliation for U.S. attacks on its training sites in Yemen. Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Today, on "Good Morning America," Napolitano said, "Clearly, there's some work that needs to be done to link up what we call the tie, the generic base in which his name had been entered, to those who already have visas."

"We want to go backward now and review our list processes," Napolitano continued. "They clearly need to be adjusted. We need to look at this individual specially, and the screening technology that was deployed."

The terror suspect who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas Day is being held in a federal prison near Detroit as airports remain on high alert and the U.S. government tries to determine if the man is was one in a series of possible attackers.

The incident was a signal that the U.S. government needs to review the process by which individuals such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, are placed on security lists, Napolitano said.

"One of the things that we are doing is going backward. What were the facts that led up to this event, how did this individual get on the plane, why wasn't he flagged at a higher screening level, how did he get an explosive substance onto the plane," Napolitano said on "GMA" today.

Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national, was on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list but not on its no-fly list, which would have prevented him from boarding Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

In May 2009, a report by the Justice Department Inspector General found problems with how the FBI was managing the terrorism watch list, noting, "We found that the FBI failed to nominate many subjects in the terrorism investigations that we sampled, did not nominate many others in a timely fashion and did not update or remove watch list records as required. Specifically, in 32 of the 216 (15 percent) terrorism investigations we reviewed, 35 subjects of these investigations were not nominated to the consolidated terrorist watch list, contrary to FBI policy."

Abdulmutallab was also placed on the United Kingdom's watch list after he was refused a student visa 14 months ago.

British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said today he did not believe Abdulmutallab had been acting alone, and that police and security services in Britain were examining whether he was radicalized while studying at University College London between 2005 and 2008.

President Obama has ordered a full review of the incident and of the U.S. terror-watch list. He will make remarks today on the incident and measures taken in response, including the reviews that he has ordered.

White House officials say the president has been briefed regularly and has held secured conference calls with administration officials. But he has no plans to change his travel schedule, a move that has drawn criticism from some Republicans who say the Obama administration hasn't done enough to prevent such terror attacks.

Napolitano's remarks on Sunday to CNN brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.

"It's not reassuring when the secretary of Homeland Security says the system worked," King said. "It failed in every respect."

The Senate Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing next month to examine U.S. security measures.

"We were very lucky this time, but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened," committee chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in a written statement. "What we know about the Abdulmutallab case raises two big, urgent questions that we are holding this hearing to answer: Why aren't airline passengers flying into the U.S. checked against the broadest terrorist database and why isn't whole body scanning technology that can detect explosives in wider use?"

Abdulmutallab's family had warned U.S. authorities of the increased radicalization of their son, a student at a London university until 2008. His father went to the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Abuja Nov. 19 to report that he believed his son was being radicalized.

On Nov. 20, the embassy sent out a cable to U.S. embassies worldwide and to the U.S. counterterrorism community alerting them to the information that was provided by Abdulmutallab's father. An intelligence source told ABC News the cable from the State Department noted that the father expressed concern about his son's association with extremists.

There are hundreds of walk-ins to embassies reporting various threats. The State Department's cable triggered the entry into a database run and maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, but no further threat information was entered because the State Department cable did not contain any specific information about who the son was associated with and the threat they posed.

One senior State Department official did not dispute the possibility -- but could not confirm -- that the State Department may not have realized in November that the individual already held a U.S. visa but noted that someone else in the government, such as security or counterterrorism agencies, would also have had access to that information.

Abdulmutallab has warned that there are more men like him but U.S. officials have no evidence that the incident was one in a wave of planned attacks. Officials will take Abdulmutallab's DNA sample later today, a fairly routine procedure in a case like this.

A hearing was scheduled for Abdulmutallab today, but a spokesperson for federal prosecutors said it was canceled. There will be a preliminary hearing Jan. 8.