Security Failure? U.S. Intel Agencies Aware a Nigerian was Being Prepared for Terror Plot

U.S. had intel that a Nigerian was being prepared for a terrorist assault.

December 30, 2009, 7:23 AM

Dec. 30, 2009— -- A day after President Obama bluntly acknowledged security failures in the case of the Christmas Day terror plot on Northwest Flight 253, ABC News has confirmed that the U.S. government had intelligence that a Nigerian was in Yemen being prepared for a terrorist assault, but it is unclear why the information wasn't acted on.

A CIA official met with the father of Umar Farouk Abdumutallab, the suspect being held in the plot, after he reported the increasing radicalization of his son to the U.S. Embassy, information that he State Department sent to intelligence agencies. The father informed the CIA his son was in Yemen, but it is unclear why more urgency was not assigned to the case by counterterrorism and intelligence agencies.

"We learned of him [Abdulmutallab] in November, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him. We did not have his name before then. Also in November, we worked with the embassy to ensure he was in the government's terrorist database, including mention of his possible extremist connections in Yemen. We also forwarded key biographical information about him to the National Counterterrorism Center. This agency, like others in our government, is reviewing all data to which it had access -- not just what we ourselves may have collected -- to determine if more could have been done to stop Abdulmutallab," CIA spokesman George Little said in a statement.

The 23-year-old terror suspect was able to smuggle explosives past two screening check points on two commercial airlines, one of which was a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit.

"There does appear to be a failure here at either the CIA or the new National Counterterrorism Center," said Richard Clarke, ABC News consultant and former counterterrorism adviser to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "The intelligence community seems to have failed here. When they received information that someone was planning an attack, that should've become priority number one, go out and find any shred of information related to 'a Nigerian' in Yemen."

Obama on Tuesday bluntly acknowledged those failures.

"A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," the president said in Hawaii. "There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together."

Clarke, who worked on Obama's transition team, says counterterrorism agencies missed red flags, and that they should've talked to the British, who refused to grant Abdulmutallab's visa and seemingly had more information about the Nigerian national who studied at a London university.

"There's a business-as-usual attitude in many of the agencies, particularly in the CIA," Clarke said on "Good Morning America." "The president's right. He deserves to be mad. ... We were lucky this time, let's face it. Maybe we won't be lucky next time unless we clean house."

The president has ordered two reviews, one to assess terror watch list procedures and another to determine how the suspect was able to get explosives onto Flight 253. The president said the preliminary information from the reviews he has ordered "raises some serious concerns," and he said intelligence agencies need to act quickly to fix those flaws.

"The system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have," Obama said from Hawaii, where he is vacationing with his family.

The case of the young terror suspect has sparked intelligence agencies worldwide to step up their efforts. In the United Kingdom, investigators searched Abdulmutallab's apartment and are looking into the school he attended from 2005 to 2008. In Dubai, where the Nigerian national lived briefly, authorities say they are interviewing his former classmates.

"We only know little about the student from his university. He stayed here briefly and we don't have any suspicions of the involvement of other members with the Nigerian man," said Dubai police chief Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan bin Tamim. "We were not approached by any agency before or after the incident. The student briefly studied in a Dubai-based university and was known to be quiet and calm."

The Dutch Interior Ministry said today it would start using full-body scanners, a technology that experts say could have detected the explosives hidden in Abdulmutallab's underwear, within three weeks for flights to the United States.

Terror Plot Spurs Partisan Bickering

While the president was taking aim at intelligence agencies that report to him, Republicans were firing political shots at Obama and Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

Critics seized on comments Napolitano made Sunday, saying that the "system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days." Napolitano was referring to the response after the incident took place. She was criticized for not emphasizing on Sunday the gravity of the attack and acknowledging possible breakdowns in security.

But on Monday, Napolitano was far more forceful in pointing out shortcomings and said that an intensive review would be done to see if systematic failures led to breakdown in security.

Despite this, some GOP leaders such as Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., are calling for Napolitano's resignation.

"I'm not sure she has the ability to organize that agency to make sure we're secure," Burton said.

Administration officials dub such calls standard Washington political fare and said the president maintains full confidence in Napolitano.

Clarke said Napolitano is not the one to blame here, since she was not provided all the information by intelligence agencies.

"I think she's doing a great job. She was not given the information, her department was not given the information," Clarke said on "GMA." "She inherited a TSA that needed a lot of work. ... I think the problem lies in the intelligence community and not in Homeland Security."

While the GOP is attacking Napolitano, Democrats are pointing the finger at Republicans for blocking the nomination of Obama's nominee for the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., put Southers' nomination on hold amid concerns that the new director would allow TSA screeners to unionize.

"Republicans," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a statement, "have decided to play politics" with a critical nomination. The Nevada senator intends to schedule a vote to break the hold when the Senate returns in January, his office said.

"We have been trying to confirm Mr. Southers since he cleared committee, including at the end of this session," Reid's spokesperson Jim Manley said in a statement to ABC News. "Sadly the Republican obstructionism of just one person, Sen. DeMint, prevented TSA from having the leadership in place that the organization deserves."

DeMint used the opportunity to argue against the unionization of TSA employees, saying that the agency is able to make quick decisions in the event of a terror incident because its employees are not unionized.

"Many Americans aren't aware that the president's nominee to lead the TSA appears ready to give union bosses the power to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports," DeMint said. "I hope this incident will lead the president to rethink this policy and put the interests of American travelers ahead of organized labor."

Experts say both Democrats and Republicans need to stop the political bickering on national security.

"I don't think it ought to be a political issue, and I didn't think it should be when I -- we were in office," Napolitano's predecessor, Michael Chertoff, told ABC News. "Unfortunately some people made it a political issue."

Former Bush administration national security official Gordon Johndroe said Republicans should "move on beyond the union issues" being used by DeMint to block an up-or-down vote on Southers.

"We've got to move on beyond the union issues; they will get worked out, it's an issue that the Department of Homeland Security has been working out since it was created six years ago," Johndroe said Tuesday on "Top Line," adding that he thinks DeMint's parliamentary maneuver is opening up Republicans a "little bit" to criticism from Democrats.

Experts are mixed on how the lack of a permanent director affects the agency. Some say that while terror plots such as the one last week are difficult to stop, having an agency head in place would make a difference.

"Any time you have an agency without political leadership, it drifts. New initiatives not put in play, reviews of old initiatives are not completed, it tends to drift," Peter Goelz, a former director of the National Transportation Safety Board and currently senior vice president at O'Neill and Associates, told ABC News.

But the TSA cannot entirely be blamed for Friday's incident.

"It is extraordinarily difficult to stop dedicated suicide bombers from carrying out their mission," Goelz said.

ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.