National Security

After Plane Plot, Terror Center Under Scrutiny

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In the forensic analysis of what went wrong in the lead up to the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center will likely be placed under close review. Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the intelligence relies mostly on the judgment of the experts at the NCTC.


Now we turn to the other big terrorism case in the news, this one much closer to home: the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253. In the forensic analysis of what went wrong in the lead up to that potential attack, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center will certainly be placed under close review. The center was created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to serve as a clearing house for information for more than 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and departments. And it was designed to help prevent the kind of disaster that nearly occurred on Christmas Day. The center has a daunting task. It's supposed to process between 10,000 and 12,000 pieces of information every single day.

To find out more about how the NCTC works, we're joined now by Rick Nelson. He was a supervisor at the NCTC when it was first created. He's now the director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome to the program, Mr. Nelson.

Mr. RICK NELSON (Director, Homeland Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you very much.

NORRIS: So, the agency is essentially an aggregator that sifts through a lot of information. How do you find these red flags when the information comes in from all of these various databases? At some point, does technology stop and do human analysts actually have to step in and do this work?

Mr. NELSON: Well, it's a combination of the two, but mostly relies on the judgment of the individual analysts that are there. The analysts who are skilled in research techniques and analytic techniques are subject matter experts. And based on their instincts and based on what they're seeing and what they're reading, they're the ones who would go ahead and begin additional analysis and beginning connecting the dots based on trends they may be seeing with the information.

NORRIS: So, given that both State and the CIA were aware of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, help us understand, what should've happened with the intelligence that they actually had at NCTC?

Mr. NELSON: Well, what I - on the State Department piece - and I think that's a great point - is I would've liked to have seen a system where when the derogatory information was put into this tied database, which is held at NCTC, that it triggered State Department to note - annotate his visa so that he could go under some additional scrutiny or further scrutiny before he was allowed, actually, to get on that airplane.

But with NCTC and the information that they have out there, again, what they're going to do is when they get a trigger, they're going to try to link that with other pieces of information they have out there and put together a profile. But at the end of the day, they're not the ones that can take action with that information. They are certainly just the aggregators of it.

NORRIS: Should the NCTC have known that Abdulmutallab had an active visa to enter the U.S.?

Mr. NELSON: That system - those two systems should've been talking. The NCTC should've been aware of the fact that he had an active visa. I'd like to look at it from the other perspective, though, is what should've happened is when the father came into the embassy and said, I was concerned about my son. That information should've triggered the visa system to flag it prior to allowing him to get on an airplane.

NORRIS: So, when you talk about agencies talking to each other, how would they have known? What should have happened?

Mr. NELSON: Well, there should've been - there should be a free flow of information. Some of this information should happen automatically and it doesn't and that's...

NORRIS: You mean, update across systems in all agencies.

Mr. NELSON: Absolutely, that's correct. Some of it is still done manually. There are still a lot of work to be done in the U.S. government to get these databases to talk between the databases. And that's something that we need to fix. Certainly you want to have human - a role in this - human intervention and the amalgamation of information and a decision-making process. But some of this, for example, if a derogatory piece of information is put on an individual, where we had specifically - had his name, that should've been matched against a visa database and that should've been noted.

NORRIS: Yes or no question before we move on. I'm thinking about that picture that was released in the White House yesterday. The president's at this great big table, all kinds of people are sitting - seated around that table. Is that part of the problem, a lot of people in that room, perhaps too many parts in the security machinery?

Mr. NELSON: Well, you know, you can say that. Yeah, yes or no question. I think we do have too many people trying to do the same job. And we need to put - at least give someone some authority over it to take care of it.

NORRIS: Rick Nelson, thank you very much.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Rick Nelson is a former supervisor at the National Counterterrorism Center. He is also a former Navy commander. And he now is the director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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