National Security

New Details In Failed Plane Plot

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U.S. intelligence collected intercepts from Yemen referring to a Nigerian being prepared for a terrorist attack before the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. Also, the CIA met with the suspected terrorist's father last month and was warned about the Nigerian student's potential ties to extremists.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the latest on the investigation into the failed attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. We now know that before the attack, U.S. intelligence collected intercepts from Yemen, referring to a Nigerian who was being prepared for a terrorist attack. We also know that the CIA met with the terror suspect's father last month in Nigeria, and that the father warned the agency about his son's potential ties to extremists.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly joins me now. And Mary Louise, it seems the more we learn, the harder it is to understand how those dots were not connected by someone.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Well, it is always easier to connect the dots in hindsight, of course. But yes, there are the NSA intercepts you mentioned; there's the CIA contact last month. We know Britain had denied this man a visa. We know he paid cash for his ticket. We know he checked no bags. I mean, it's a staggering number of red flags that should have been going off, in hindsight - systemic failure from local airport officials in Nigeria and in the Netherlands, to big government agencies here in Washington.

SIEGEL: Is the CIA contact here especially damning? I mean, the suspect's father told the CIA that he thought his son had been radicalized. He mentioned Yemen, and the son still doesn't end up on a watch list.

KELLY: Well, it certainly doesn't look good. What the agency says is, they passed on everything they knew. They made sure Abdulmutallab was added to the terrorist database - not, mind you, to the no-fly list, unfortunately. However, that's not the CIA's responsibility. That now falls to the National Counterterrorism Center, which manages these lists. That was one of the post 9/11 reforms, was the NCTC was supposed to gather all this incoming information and share it. So, one U.S. intelligence official says, and I'll quote: If somebody thinks it could have been done better in this case, they know where to go for answers.

SIEGEL: There seems to be an unusual amount of finger-pointing going on here, a certain amount of buck-passing.

KELLY: Certain amount of defending your turf�


KELLY: �certainly. I mean, you have people who are sympathetic to the CIA who say, hey, we shared what we knew. It was the NCTC's call not to put this guy on the no-fly list. The NCTC, we should note, has not put out any sort of official statement. But people who are sympathetic to their camp will tell you, you know, they might have reacted differently if they'd had more to go on, that these reports the CIA was passing on were pretty thin. You know, Robert, I think the key point here, as fun as it can be to watch bureaucracies bickering, is that these agencies - the NCTC was set up after 9/11. This was a new office created to try to prevent something like 9/11 from ever happening again. You see an incident like this Detroit-bound flight happening and you say, did the reforms work?


KELLY: Or are there still real gaps here?

SIEGEL: This was the department of dot-connecting�

KELLY: Exactly.

SIEGEL: �as it was created.

KELLY: Exactly.

SIEGEL: So, what is the mechanism, then, by which all these different tidbits were supposed to be put together, in which the dots were supposed to be connected?

KELLY: Well, the short answer is, this is now the NCTC's job. The reality is, it still relies on a human being, on an analyst looking at the information and putting two and two together. So I was told today, for example, these intercepts from Yemen, which sound awfully damning in hindsight, mentioned a Nigerian but didn't give a name. So without the name, you have the NSA, this vast agency, collecting vast amounts of information. There's no computer that is automatically going to match that, for example, with what's coming in - information from the suspect's father coming in from Nigeria and triggering a red flag. So that's one of the things they're going to look at. How do we improve this technology, try to make it so that more of those links can get made in advance?

SIEGEL: Just one other item, Mary Louise, before I let you go. We mentioned security lapses in Amsterdam. The Dutch announced today they're going to start using full-body scans.

KELLY: Full-body scanners at Skipple Airport for people flying to the U.S. There are some privacy concerns, obviously, about that. But the pendulum seems to be swinging: a little bit more security, maybe a little bit less privacy for now.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome.

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