Senate Panel Examines Attempted Plane Bombing

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The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds a hearing Wednesday into the Christmas Day attempted attack. The committee wants to understand why U.S. intelligence agencies didn't uncover the plot. Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the committee, talks with Renee Montagne about what those agencies are doing to prevent future attacks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A Senate committee is questioning top intelligence officials today to find out more about that attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day - in particular, why U.S. intelligence agencies didn't uncover the plot.

Senator Joe Lieberman is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): It's clear that information was being shared, which it wasn't pre-9/11, between the various intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies and Homeland Security people. But human error, as the president said, was made in handling that information. People didn't use good judgment.

MONTAGNE: You speak about human error - let me pose to you one of those moments. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - the embassy in Nigeria misspelled his name.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: May be a hard name to spell...

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...but the State Department initially didnt think he had a visa. You know...

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Boy, that's a terrible human error, but I will tell you that they discovered that within five days and there was still, what, 20 days before he got on the plane to come to the United States, to blow himself and a lot of other people up.

MONTAGNE: You were the architect of the legislation that created the National Counterterrorism Center after 9/11.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And specifically, this particular organization was created to connect the dots, bring together information.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah. Look, the National Counterterrorism Center, to me, has been one of the unsung heroes of the post-9/11 Commission legislation years, because it really has been a place where all the people in the intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security communities sit, work together 24/7, 365 days a year, share information. But here's something that I want to ask the witnesses today. People at the National Counterterrorism Center have access to all the databases of all the agencies. There's total sharing. But I'm concerned that they dont have the easy ability to draw linkages between the various databases and...

MONTAGNE: Is that computers?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah. That's...

MONTAGNE: Is that - literally, you cannot go in there and put Abdul Farouk, Nigerian, Yemen and come bring everything together?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: That's my concern. And I want to clarify that today. In other words, we all know that when we go into Google and we go into a subject matter, Google immediately searches an enormous number of databases. It's not clear to me that at the National Counterterrorism Center today, if you put in the name Umar Farouk, or even Nigerian, it will automatically cross-search all the intelligence and law enforcement databases it has. I want to find out whether that exists, and I'm afraid that it doesnt.

MONTAGNE: The director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who will be testifying before your committee, Michael Leiter...

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Right. Right.

MONTAGNE: ...spoke with NPR before the Christmas Day attack. And he had this to say...

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): We're not going to stop every attack, but we have to do our best and we have to adjust based on, again, how the enemy changes their tactics.

MONTAGNE: Do you think its important for Americans to understand and accept that 100 percent success is not possible?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah, look, realistically, in a society as open as ours, facing an enemy as inhumane and as little self-protecting of life as the Islamist extremist terrorists we're facing today, it's real hard to be 100 percent successful in stopping terrorist attacks against the United States. That's realism. But I will tell you something: It seems to me that our government, and we in Congress, ought to have the goal of stopping 100 percent of the attempts. And that's the aim of this hearing today.

MONTAGNE: Senator, thank you very much for talking with us.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Renee. Take care.

MONTAGNE: Senator Joe Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

And the attempted bombing of the Northwest plane was just the latest in a string of attacks linked to al-Qaida. You'll find a timeline of events linked to the group at our Web site, npr.org.

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