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Obama Team To Congress: Sorry For Christmas Bomber Lapses

Members of President Obama's national security team testify before Congress.

Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, looks at Michael Leiter, director of National Counterterrorism Center, who talks to members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee about lessons learned from the attempted Christmas airliner bombing. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is in the background. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Key Obama Administration national security officials were on Capitol Hill Wednesday where they apologized to lawmakers for failing to stop an alleged bomber with al-Qaida ties from getting on a Detroit bound flight even though U.S. intelligence had information on various aspects of the plot.

Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, led off for the three officials appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent:

To open, I want to offer what I hope is an absolutely crystal-clear assertion: Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab should not have stepped onto a plane on Christmas Day. The counterterrorism system collectively failed and I, along with Director Blair and Secretary Napolitano and others, want to tell you and the American people the same thing we told the president: that we are have to do better.

His mea culpa was followed by one from National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair who of the three officials seemed to accept responsibility on the most personal terms:

And let me echo Director Leiter's words that Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab should not have stepped on Northwest Flight 253 for Detroit. The overall counterterrorism system did not do its job. It's in large part my responsibility. I told the president that I and the other leaders of the intelligence community are determined to do better in the future.

Then it was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's turn to say mistakes were made:

Regarding the Christmas Day attack, Umar Abdulmutallab should never have been allowed to board this U.S.-bound plane with explosives.

On NPR's Morning Edition Wednesday, Lieberman told host Renee Montagne he wanted to learn more about the difficulties intelligence analysts have in searching their databases, a problem many people were surprised to learn of considering how many billions of dollars have been spent on homeland security and intelligence since 9/11.

The national security officials told Lieberman that they've realized that searching federal intelligence databases for information related to a particular suspected terrorist or plot isn't as easy as one might think, even in the Google age. They left the clear impression that even after consulting with private-sector companies like Google, there were still difficulties.

One really interesting fact to emerge was that U.S. intel people evidently didn't realize it's important to rigorously test search technology to practice finding certain information. They realize that now.

Here's their exchange with Lieberman:

LIEBERMAN: Now, you've got a series of separate databases from different parts of the intelligence community and the government so that, in that sense — and you've got access to all of them — plenty of sharing. But there's not a program — a search engine — right now by which you can, by act or by some automatic software programming, can have expected, in this case, for instance, that there would have been a hit and an alarm on Umar Farouk, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Nigerian, Nigeria, December 25th. Am I right? Do we not have that
capacity within the NCTC?

MR. LEITER: Senator, we do not have that exact capacity, but I would note that, over the past several years, we've worked with folks across government and some of the private-sector companies that you would expect have that best technology, and the answer uniformly has been that is not as easy a problem as people would expect.

I think we have some potential technological solutions on the very, very near-term horizon that we're attempting to implement within weeks. And frankly, we were surprised — I was surprised — at the extent to which other agency searches weren't hitting against very critical data sets that might have uncovered this, and then highlighted them for NCTC and others.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Director Blair, do you want to add anything to that?

DIRECTOR BLAIR: I would only amplify on what Director Leiter said, Mr. Chairman. The search tools that we now have depend on certain characteristics — and I don't want to describe them here — but they also have blind spots that don't allow the sort of Google- like, sort of idea that we have from our own computers. Several of those shortcomings came up in this case, which we can fix.

I think that the other thing that I've learned from this is that we — almost all of our energy was focused on building these systems, hooking together, getting the search engines. We don't have enough of a testing regime so that we do the what-ifs before we have one of these incidents — put partial information in, see where it goes, fix those and find those for ourselves. And that sort of continued self-testing is going to be a greater part going forward so that we can
make some of these mistakes for practice before we make them for real.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Okay, so you're, with a sense of real urgency, going now after improving what I would call the search capacity across the databases you have automatically to come up with linkages, correct?

MR. LEITER: Correct, and I would just stress that this is not actually a new problem from our perspective. This is the kind of thing we've been working with — (inaudible). We have obviously not gotten to the point where we need to get, and we're trying to accelerate that now.

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