Would-Be Bomber Issued U.S. Entry Visa

Details are emerging on how the man suspected of trying to blow up a U.S. jetliner on Christmas Day received a U.S. entry visa. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy is in charge of visas for the State Department. Kennedy talks to Steve Inskeep about the visa process, and just how the suspect was issued a multiple-entry visa.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A State Department official is offering NPR a detailed explanation how elaborate security measures set up after 9/11 did not stop a would-be bomber.

BRAND: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day. Nobody cancelled the Nigerian's visa, even though his father warned of his links to extremists.

INSKEEP: All through the holidays, that case was on the mind of Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of State for Management. His story explains how U.S. agencies are supposed to work together and what they actually did.

Where and when did Abdulmutallab receive a multiple-entry visa to the United States?

Undersecretary PATRICK KENNEDY (Undersecretary of State for Management): He received a multiple-entry visa to the United States at the American Embassy in London in 2008, and he had previously received a multiple-entry visa to the United States at the American Embassy in Nigeria in 2006.

INSKEEP: What reason did Abdulmutallab give for wanting a multiple-entry visa to the United States?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: Tourism.

INSKEEP: And that's a perfectly good reason.

Undersecretary KENNEDY: Perfectly good reason. We - tourism is one of the largest industries in the United States, and once we have met the threshold of national security, we encourage international commerce, including tourism, because it creates jobs in the United States.

INSKEEP: And what was done with this visa to ensure that it met the threshold of national security?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: Every visa application that the State Department receives, the individual's interviewed, has their fingerprints taken. That application is then put into the State Department's computer system and run against a database that is updated continuously.

INSKEEP: So, in 2008, these data checks turned up nothing, and so far as we know, even today, there wasn't anything to find in any American database of that time.

Undersecretary KENNEDY: Well, I know, that there was no information in any database when the visa was issued in 2008. There was nothing in his record that would say that he was a threat to the United States.

INSKEEP: So it gets to November 19, if I'm not mistaken.

Undersecretary KENNEDY: Right.

INSKEEP: Mr. Abdulmutallab's father goes into the United States consulate in Lagos, Nigeria. What is your understanding of the way that he expressed his concerns about his son?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: Well, my understanding is that he expressed his concern that his son had disappeared. He was concerned about his absence and that he may have come under the influence of extremists. And the counselor section immediately submitted a report to Washington and to the intelligence and law enforcement communities saying that here are the individual's names. Here are the particulars: his passport number, date and place of birth, and the comment that his father has reported, what I just said to you. And then we wait for instructions from the intelligence community to say, is this information, in your minds, sufficient to be of concern? Do you have any other information?

INSKEEP: You're saying everybody knew or should have known what you knew about this individual.

Undersecretary KENNEDY: When we filed a report, we send this report electronically to Washington, and through the electronic distribution system, it goes to every U.S. government agency involved in the national security clearance process involving law enforcement and the intelligence communities.

INSKEEP: What kind of report was this, involving Abdulmutallab and his father?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: The process that we follow when the information comes to the attention of the State Department and their counselor section is called Visas Viper. And you submit it to a range of U.S. government agencies in Washington.

INSKEEP: Is it called Visas Viper because it really is all about the credibility of visas and whether they should be maintained or revoked?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: It is all about telling the Washington headquarters that a concern has been raised. Here is a piece of information that we've that has come into our possession: You, the community writ large, you tell us, do you have any pieces of information on this individual that will then guide the actions that we take?

INSKEEP: Did you get anything back?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: No.

INSKEEP: No information, whatsoever?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: No.

INSKEEP: Did the State Department or that counselor section there in Nigeria have enough information on its own to raise questions or even revoke that visa? Because the most incriminating piece of information about the gentleman was in your possession, it seems.

Undersecretary KENNEDY: We had his father's statement of concerns. And therefore, we take those very, very seriously, which is why we sent it in to all the appropriate agencies and said, what does this piece of information mean to you?

INSKEEP: But you didn't have enough on your own?

Undersecretary KENNEDY: We - there was not sufficient information in and of itself, is what we were told, to revoke the visa. Another thing I might say is that the process developed by the community following 9/11 calls for this collective approach. There are cases that arise where the law enforcement or intelligence communities actually want the person to come to the United States.

INSKEEP: They may like to arrest them under American law, say.

Mr. KENNEDY: They might like to arrest them. They might like to follow them.

INSKEEP: So in your judgment, did anything go wrong here?

Mr. KENNEDY: Oh, I think the president and the secretary of state have said that this was not the way the process should have worked.

INSKEEP: Mr. Kennedy, thanks very much.

Mr. KENNEDY: Certainly, my pleasure.

INSKEEP: So that's one perspective on what went wrong from Patrick Kennedy of the State Department.

BRAND: Another source explains what happened to the father's warning when it was passed on to Washington. A law enforcement source tells NPR the advisory reached the National Counter-Terrorism Center. Analysts there weren't sure the father was credible, so the center simply put the son's name on a list of people with possible extremists links, a list of half a million names.

INSKEEP: And on Christmas Day, yet another agency, Border Security, noticed his name on that list. Abdulmutallab was already on a plane, already in the air. The Los Angeles Times reports that border officials were planning to question him after the plane landed in Detroit.

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