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.

ByABC News via logo
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.