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Obama Sharpens Criticism of Bomb Plot’s ‘Human and Systemic Failures’

December 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama criticized "human and systemic failures" that allowed an attempted bombing of a flight bound for Detroit. Margaret Warner reports and speaks with Jeffrey Brown about the latest developments.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama sharpened his criticism today of security failures that led to last week’s attempted airliner bombing. He spoke as new information emerged today on the main suspect.

Margaret Warner has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: The path that led to this Christmas Day scene at Detroit Metro Airport came more clearly into view today. Authorities in Yemen reported that the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had spent extended periods in Yemen. But they said there was no indication he might be trouble, and they were never told he was on any kind of U.S. watch list.

HASSAN AL-LOZY, information minister, Yemen: He is not on the Yemeni list of most-wanted suspected terrorists. He only visited Yemen twice. His first visit was in 2004, and it lasted until 2005. And the second visit was last August, and he left during the last week of December. He came under the pretense of studying the Arabic language.

MARGARET WARNER: Hours later, in Hawaii, President Obama acknowledged a systemic failure in the U.S. security system. He said, U.S. officials failed to act on a warning from Abdulmutallab’s own father.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.

MARGARET WARNER: An al-Qaida offshore shoot group now claims it was behind the airliner plot and had provided the homemade bomb that failed to explode.

ABC News obtained this photo of the bomb, reportedly a packet of the chemical PETN sewn into Abdulmutallab underpants. Today’s Washington Post cited federal sources saying there was enough explosive in the packet to blow a hole in the side of the airplane, if it had gone off.

There were also reports today of extensive Internet postings by Abdulmutallab. His Facebook profile shows him dressed in a pink polo shirt and lists 287 people as friends. But his postings on the Islamic Forum Web site painted a picture of a conflicted, lonely man.

In January of 2005, after a time at a British boarding school, he wrote: “I have no one to speak too (sic), no one to consult, no one to support me, and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. And then I think this loneliness leads me to other problems.”

In other postings, he seemed be struggling to balance his upbringing, as the privileged son of a prominent Nigerian banker, with becoming an increasingly devout Muslim. The emerging details left some in Nigeria struggling to understand the hows and whys of what happened.

MICHAEL SAMSON, Nigerian student: Nobody would believe before that a Nigerian person would participate in such things.

MARGARET WARNER: Abdulmutallab remained today in a federal prison in Michigan, but there were new questions about the kind of trial he would face.

Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, on the House Homeland Security Committee, said it would be a mistake to treat this as a criminal case. He called instead for a military tribunal.

Amid the new controversies and disclosures, the Christmas Day plot has already affected international air travel. This weekend, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration — or TSA — asked foreign airports to ratchet up security for flights to the United States. That caused security screening backups. At first, carriers like Air Canada had to cancel some flights.

Then, Canadian authorities decided to limit U.S.-bound passengers for now to one personal item and no carry-on luggage to speed up screening.

Martin Alilio flew in today from Montreal to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

MARTIN ALILIO: The only luggage which was allowed was a computer and a computer case. But any — any carry-on was — was to be checked in. It took quite a while to get through the check-in. And there were a lot of people waiting on the line.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, the new rules seemed to vary depending on where the international flight originated. Passengers on an in-bound flight from Korea, including Jason and Noelani Alcoba, who started in Burma, found heavier security when they transited through Seoul.

NOELANI ALCOBA: When we got to Korea, we had to go through the — the regular checkpoint from transfer connection, and then, after that, right before we got to the air — to the plane, right before we boarded, there was a bunch of security, immigration officers, who checked all our baggages, as well as our bodies.

MARGARET WARNER: Passengers on a flight from London reported in- flight restrictions as well. Alistair Garland arrived in Washington from Brussels by way of London.

ALISTAIR GARLAND: So, once we got on the plane, they made an announcement halfway through — about halfway through — saying that, for the final hour, everybody was going to have to be seated and that nobody could go and get their bags and nobody could go to restrooms.

MARGARET WARNER: Domestic passengers reported fewer delays, and security lines were moving smoothly at Dulles.

AIRLINE PASSENGER: There didn’t seem to be any heightened security or anything like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Though the passengers at Dulles seemed patient about the new restrictions, the larger question remains: Would these stepped-up airport and in-flight measure put in place in the last few days have actually foiled the would-be Christmas Day bomber?

KENNETH BUTTON, professor of public policy, George Mason University: I think some of the measures are simply, as I said, short term, and they’re knee-jerk reactions. Of course, all these measures can be put into place, like blankets on the lap and not going to the toilet, but that is not going to stop a terrorist doing things in the long term, in my view.

MARGARET WARNER: Transportation expert Kenneth Button is a professor of public policy at George Mason University. He says what’s needed is better intelligence and sorting of people on government watch lists.

KENNETH BUTTON: The list is long. There are probably people who are missed. And, in this case, there’s miscommunication. He was classified as a sort of potential dangerous person without really being a serious threat. There’s got to be much more detailed analysis and assessment of these individuals.

MARGARET WARNER: Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, on the House Intelligence Committee, called today for deploying the latest screening technology.

Current screening machines don’t detect explosives. The TSA has tried a variety of alternatives, with mixed results. So-called puffer machines use sprays of air to search for bomb residue, but they have had repeated breakdowns. Yet, full body machines that see under people’s clothing have raised privacy concerns. That’s kept them from being deployed widely in the U.S. or Europe.

Only 40 such devices have been installed at U.S. airports. The TSA plans on installing 150 more next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Margaret is with me now in our studio.

So, the president called it a systemic failure? What else have you learned about what led to that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it’s apparent, Jeff, that the first step actually worked. The father came, gave his warning at the embassy in Nigeria, and, within 24 hours, the CIA, FBI, and Homeland Security officers at the embassy had met, reviewed it, deemed it credible, and sent the warning on to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: They did what they are supposed — they are supposed to do?

MARGARET WARNER: They did, yes, very quickly.


MARGARET WARNER: And, then at the NCTC, as it’s known, it gets a little murkier.

The collective judgment, I was told, was made that he would be put on a — the broadest possible terrorist — potential terrorist list, which is 550,000 names. And it does not mark you for special screening at airports.

What it does mark you for is, they essentially open a file on you. And I’m told that the NSA began trolling through its data, the satellite collection data, to see if his name had popped up, and that other agencies were actively pursuing the Yemen connection.

But, as one State Department official said to me, that’s where we were on December 25.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is — it’s not clear yet why he was not put on a much more restricted watch list?

MARGARET WARNER: No, it wasn’t.

I mean, what this official told me, it was the collective judgment of everyone involved, and through the NCTC, at CIA, and FBI, and all the — all the relevant agencies, that, so far, there was — though the report was credible, there wasn’t anything to corroborate it, no specific what’s called derogatory information that would meet the standard of going on the so-called terrorist screening list. That’s still a huge list of 400,000.

But that’s basically decided through a separate acronym-laden agency or consortium run by the FBI. And that list is about 400,000. And it appears, piecing all this together, that what was under way was the investigation that would ultimately, perhaps, nominate him to be put on this other list.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And then — and then, lastly, for now, there’s the visa issue, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Why — why — what do we know about why the State Department did not revoke the visa?

MARGARET WARNER: I asked that question. And what State says is, they have the authority to revoke a visa, but that, in terrorism cases, they really take their lead from the collective wisdom of these various intelligence agencies.

And one official pointed out to me, you know, there are times where we have wanted to revoke a passport or visa, and FBI says, oh, no, don’t, we want to follow this guy.

So, they did not — they did not revoke the visa. The one glitch that appears to have occurred is that, on the original alert sent to Washington, it was not mentioned that he even had a visa. Now, presumably, that became part of his profile in this database, but it was not in the original alert.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Margaret Warner, thanks a lot.