Lawmakers questioned watch-list policies Sunday after a Nigerian man who had been on such a list tried unsuccessfully to bring down a trans-Atlantic jetliner carrying 278 people Christmas Day.
"We have to have a better process to decide which people to move to the 'no-fly' list and which" should have secondary screening at airports, Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), chairwoman of a House homeland security subcommittee on intelligence, said in an interview. "This is a learning experience. There was a failure."
Officials said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old suspect, received a visa at a U.S. consular outpost in London in 2008 allowing him to repeatedly enter the U.S. as a tourist.
In November 2009, officials said he was added to an entry-level, or preliminary, terrorism watch list maintained by the government. That came after his father warned officials at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that the young man had become radicalized by Islamic extremists. The father also warned that his son might be in contact with terrorist groups.
Mr. Abdulmutallab's entry onto the first list, called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, essentially meant U.S. intelligence officials had opened a file on him, authorities said. There are more than 550,000 names on that list, which are shared across the government.
But authorities didn't have enough credible or derogatory information to elevate him to a narrower, more serious list of terrorism suspects, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday on NBC. "We did not have the kind of information that under the current rules would elevate him," she said.
Lawmakers want to know why his entry into the first terrorism database didn't automatically prompt a review of his visa status, or why he didn't get more serious scrutiny, which could have led to him being elevated.
With more screening, Mr. Abdulmutallab could have landed in a smaller database of 400,000 names, called the Terrorist Screening Data Base, the main database on international terrorism within the U.S. government, officials said.
That list is maintained by an multiagency group managed by the FBI. It is supposed to contain names of individuals who are "known or reasonably suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of or related to terrorism," according to an FBI Web site.
With additional scrutiny Mr. Abdulmutallab also might have been added to the roughly 14,000-person database maintained by the Transportation Security Administration called the "Selectee" list. Those people are supposed to be automatically selected for intensified, secondary screening at airports.
The next step up is the so-called no-fly list, which contains fewer than 4,000 names of people who are banned from jetliners.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.) said Sunday in an interview that serious alarm bells should have sounded after Mr. Abdulmutallab's father went to U.S. authorities. "Within the intelligence community, I would think this would have gone right to the top of the pile, saying, 'We've got to look at this guy,'" Mr. Hoekstra said.