Wednesday, December 30, 2009

US failed to act on bomber intelligence

WASHINGTON: The US had multiple pieces of information about alleged airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, according to senior US officials, including intelligence reports and communications intercepts suggesting a Nigerian was being prepared for a terror strike by al-Qa'ida operatives in Yemen.

The intercepts were collected piecemeal by the National Security Agency, which has been monitoring al-Qa'ida militants in that country, including former Guantanamo detainees believed to be leaders there.

In addition, the father of Abdulmutallab met the CIA at the US embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 19, and told of his son's likely radicalisation, US officials said yesterday. That led to a broader gathering of agencies the next day in which the information was shared, a US official said.

But US officials said it was not clear whether intelligence officials in Washington charged with co-ordinating such intelligence activities effectively distributed the information gathered in Nigeria.

"A systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable," Mr Obama said, referring to "a mix of human and systemic failure". In his comments, Mr Obama cited information "that could have and should have been pieced together".

Officials familiar with a review ordered by Mr Obama say the connections are not obvious, except in hindsight, and that there does not appear to be a single clear warning that should have set off alarms. But if the information had been brought together before Christmas, Abdulmutallab would most likely have been put on a no-fly list and kept off the plane he tried to destroy, the President said.

The errors could prove a problem for Mr Obama, who spoke for the second day about the attack, after three days of silence. It is rare for a US president to publicly reprimand intelligence agencies.

The lapses, and Mr Obama's critical comments, will focus fresh attention on the operation of the US's intelligence agencies, particularly the National Counter-terrorism Centre, or NCTC, a Washington-based body set up after September 11 to act as a clearing house for terrorism data. The US has spent billions of dollars building systems to detect impending attacks, which appear to have failed in this instance.

It has already set off a round of finger pointing among multiple US agencies still stinging from 9/11 and Iraq-related intelligence failures. According to officials, the NCTC has complained that the CIA did not provide all the information they had, such as where Abdulmutallab attended college, while the agencies have said that the counter-terrorism center had what it needed to properly assess the threat.

Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NCTC, said in a written statement that despite improvements to information-sharing, "it is clear that gaps remain, and they must be fixed". The NSA did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency first learned of Abdulmutallab last month, when his father came to the US embassy in Nigeria.

He said the agency helped place him in the terrorist database and forwarded information to the NCTC.

The Australian

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