U.S. Intelligence Agencies Investigate Possibilities of Broad Terror Plot

A man carrying explosives similar to underwear bomber was arrested in Somalia.

December 30, 2009, 7:23 AM

Dec. 30, 2009— -- As new details emerge about what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in last week's alleged terror attempt, there is growing concern that the threat from radicals based in Africa could be wider than previously anticipated.

On Nov. 11, a Somali man in his late 30s walked into Mogadishu International Airport with an explosive device remarkably similar to the one that failed to detonate on Detroit-bound Northwest flight 253 on Christmas Day, authorities said.

It too had powdered chemicals, liquids and a syringe -- just like the one Abdulmutallab, 23, allegedly carried in his underwear and tried to detonate.

The Somali suspect, Abdi Hassan Abdi, was arrested at the airport and remains in custody. The final destination of the Daallo Airlines flight he tried to board was Dubai.

"We don't know whether he's linked with al Qaeda or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist. We caught him red-handed," a Somali police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise, told The Associated Press.

U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to see if the arrest means there is a broader plot involving multiple operatives, ABC News has learned.

Today, there are more indicators that the United States' counterterrorism system may not be functioning properly. Sources told ABC News the intelligence community only informed the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration about the incident involving Abdi this morning.

Tom Kean, chairman of the commission that investigated the 9/11 terror attacks, said the recent lack of communication has a familiar ring.

"This feels like after 9/11," Kean told ABC News. "This is, as Yogi Berra would say, deja vu -- the same thing happening over and over again. We have got to find out why. We have got to fix this problem."

Slowly, a picture is emerging of the security lapses in the case involving Abdulmutallab, a failure that President Obama bluntly acknowledged Tuesday.

The National Security Agency had intelligence that "a Nigerian" was in Yemen being prepared for a terrorist assault, but the intelligence was not widely shared within law enforcement agencies because it was considered too vague.

In November, a CIA official met with the father of Abdulmutallab, the suspect being held in the plot, after he reported the increasing radicalization of his son to the U.S. embassy. The tip by the CIA was shared with officials at the National Counterterrorism Center, which houses multiple agencies.

Government officials told ABC News that the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria sent out a cable on Nov. 20 containing only a skimpy summary of the 30-minute meeting between the CIA officer and the suspect's father the day before. One official told ABC News that a slightly more robust summary of the meeting was sent separately back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

The cable allegedly provided instructions to raise alarms if Adbulmutallab applied for a U.S. visa. However, at that point, the suspect already had one. Officials told ABC News the cable did provide biographical information about the suspect, as well as the father's tips that he believed his son was associating with extremists in Yemen.

"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," CIA spokesman George Little said in a statement.

But the intelligence from the National Security Agency about the Nigerian being trained in Yemen apparently was never linked to the information from the father.

"One piece of information by itself may sound vague -- but when you link with a second piece and a third piece, the next thing you know, you have a terrorist plot," Kean said.

Abdulmutallab was on a U.S. terror-watch list but not on the main no-fly list. He had a two-year U.S. visa valid until July 2010, even though the United Kingdom denied him a visa last year and placed him on its watch list.

Abdulmutallab visited the United States twice, most recently in August 2008, to attend a program hosted by Al-Maghrib Institute in Houston.

The young Nigerian national was able to smuggle explosives past two screening checkpoints 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, an ABC News consultant and former counterterrorism adviser to 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."

The Senate has scheduled a hearing for January on the case. Today, senior staffers on Capitol Hill were briefed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, a U.S. official tells ABC News.

President Obama Addressed Security Failures Tuesday

Obama on Tuesday bluntly acknowledged such 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."

Experts say there was not sufficient sharing of information seamlessly and quickly.

"The exchange of information is not as quick and effective as it should be," president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told ABC News. "We've got to be able to match these names quickly, promptly, seamlessly. We've got to be able to develop detectors."

Clarke, who worked on Obama's transition team, said counterterrorism agencies missed red flags and should have 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 allegedly 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.

A senior State Department official tells ABC News that one recommendation likely to appear in the review is that these cables, known as "Visa Viper cables", include more pre-existing information, such as whether someone holds a U.S. visa.

Currently, consular officials, who are the ones that send these cables, are required only to include biographical info and unclassified new information that has been learned.

The official says there will be a recommendation to increase cross-referencing about suspects and include all information available to consular officials instead of expecting the cable recipient to look it up themselves as they do now.

The reviews are due to President Obama Thursday, but much of it will likely be classified.

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 said they were 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 within three weeks using full-body scanners -- a technology that experts said could have detected the explosives hidden in Abdulmutallab's underwear -- 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 incident 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 are calling for Napolitano's resignation.

"I think that we need a secretary of homeland security who understands that this is a systems problem and her first response was totally wrong," former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told ABC News. "As a country, for our national security and for the safety of Americans, we need an effective homeland security secretary."

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

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

Clarke said Napolitano is not the one to blame here, because 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 pick to head 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 spokesman, 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 said both Democrats and Republicans need to stop the political bickering on national security.

"The problem now is not to fix blame," Kean said. "That is not what we should be doing. What we should be doing is share the information. That is what it is all about."

"I don't think it ought to be a political issue, and I didn't think it should be when 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 ABC News Now's "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.

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

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

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

ABC News' Kirit Radia and Jason Ryan contributed to this report.