The Obama administration released a report Thursday on the series of intelligence failures that allowed a suspected terrorist to slip through the cracks and sneak explosives onto a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day. What the report didn't reveal, however, was just how much intelligence the U.S. not only had but also tried to act upon to disrupt the unfolding plot.
"This was not a failure to share information. In fact, our review found the intelligence agencies and analysts had the information they needed," John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, said during a White House briefing. "It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we had."
Senior intelligence officials tell NPR that in many respects U.S. intelligence agencies were everywhere they were supposed to be as they tried to zero in on the Christmas Day threat. The National Security Agency had intercepted communications among operatives of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who were in Yemen. In those intercepts, the terrorist leaders had discussed a Nigerian who was apparently being trained for an attack. While there wasn't specificity, the NSA was listening to the right phones to have picked up the intelligence.
A short time later, on Dec. 17, Yemen launched a series of military raids against al-Qaida training camps in al-Maajala, a village several hundred miles south of the capital, San'a. At the time the raids were made public, they seemed like just another operation aimed at hobbling al-Qaida and its affiliate in Yemen. In fact, sources say, the raid was aimed at derailing the holiday operation the NSA had heard about.
A second blow was struck Dec. 24 when the U.S. launched a missile strike aimed at senior al-Qaida operatives who were attending a meeting in Shabwa, Yemen. Again, officials say, that strike was called to derail the holiday attack U.S. officials feared was under way.
'A Lot Done Right'
Where U.S. officials say they fell short was in actually catching 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. They were not able to connect the dots quickly enough to prevent him from boarding Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam. And because of that, they say, he was able to try to set off an explosive device while the flight was circling Detroit for a landing.
That the alleged plot got that far has eclipsed just how close U.S. intelligence apparently was to foiling it.
"We actually did a lot of things right," one official told NPR. "We were in the right places, listening to the right phones, but we didn't grab the kid. There's no question that is a failure and mistakes were made. But a lot of things went right before that went wrong."
Among the things that went wrong was the failure to bring together two vital pieces of intelligence: the NSA's tip that a Nigerian was in training for a possible attack, and the interview that CIA officials in the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, had with Abdulmutallab's father on Nov. 19. The father had told State Department officials and CIA agents that Abdulmutallab had disappeared in Yemen and he feared he had been radicalized by extremists there. If that piece of information had been linked to the NSA intercept, Abdulmutallab may well have been apprehended.
The Obama administration's review of the foiled attack said that both National Counterterrorism Center and CIA personnel responsible for making sure potential terrorists don't board flights didn't search all the available databases for Abdulmutallab. As a result, the information was available but they didn't connect the NSA intercept to Abdulmutallab's father's concerns about his son. Compounding the problem was the fact that Abdulmutallab's name had been misspelled, so when officials initially looked to see if he had a visa to get into the U.S., it appeared that he didn't. In fact, he had a multiple entry visa that had been issued in 2008.
What is clear is that the turf battles between agencies that were blamed for allowing the Sept. 11 attacks to take place weren't the reason officials missed Abdulmutallab. In fact, the problem was quite the opposite. There was too much information to sift through, so, as the report says, officials didn't "fuse intelligence into a coherent story."