Senate Panels Delve Into Christmas Bomb Case

A parade of national security officials appeared before several Senate panels Wednesday. They were explaining how a 23-year-old Nigerian man with explosives sewn into his underwear boarded a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. And while the Obama administration was dealing with questions from Senators, they were confronted with a new issue. They now have to find another nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration.

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A parade of national security officials appeared yesterday before several Senate panels. They were explaining how a young Nigerian man with explosives sewn into his underwear was able to board a Northwest Air flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Just as lawmakers probed homeland security matters, the White House was confronted with finding a new nominee to head the very agency that oversees security at the nation's airports. NPR's Brian Naylor begins his report at the hearings.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It was difficult to argue with the opening statement by Michael Leiter before the Senate Homeland Security panel. Leiter is head of the National Counterterrorism Center, the place where the intelligence dots were supposed to be connected.

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should not have stepped onto a plane on Christmas Day. The counterterrorism system collectively failed.

NAYLOR: Officials testified the system failed for, among other reasons, because a State Department employee misspelled bombing suspect Abdulmutallab's name when checking it against a list of U.S. visa holders. The State Department says it now has spell check software to prevent further such errors. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said security officials had also bowed to pressure to shrink terrorist watch lists.

Mr. DENNIS BLAIR (Director, National Intelligence): Frankly, I think the pressure was sort of going the other way in those last couple years. Things are going pretty well. You've got too many people on the no-fly list. Why are you searching grandmothers? You know, I think we are really learning from this incident, which thankfully, nobody was killed, and we'll make a tremendous leap forward.

NAYLOR: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said it would be impossible to prevent a similar attempt. But she added...

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): This administration and the men and women of the DHS are working 110 percent every day to minimize the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack against the homeland.

NAYLOR: Republicans pressed administration officials as to why Abdulmutallab was questioned by FBI agents and will be tried by a civilian court. They argue he should be treated as a military combatant and questioned by military interrogators, and then face a military tribunal. Arizona Republican John McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I think this decision was a terrible mistake which could impact our ability to defend this nation.

NAYLOR: At a separate hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller testified that the decision to question Abdulmutallab was made by FBI agents on the ground in Detroit. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has a new security issue before it: finding a replacement for its choice to head the TSA. Erroll Southers abruptly withdrew his name yesterday. His nomination had been blocked by Republican Senator Jim DeMint because of DeMint's concerns Southers might allow screeners at the TSA to bargain collectively for a labor contract. But Southers told NPR he was ready to move on.

Mr. ERROLL SOUTHERS (Former Nominee, TSA): I'm a counterterrorism professional, not a politician. So it appears that there's some gridlock in Congress right now. And all I know is I've been in limbo for quite some time, and the country is clearly focused on aviation security as it relates to the numerous transportation modes that might be vulnerable to a terrorist attack. And they need a leader and they need a leader now.

NAYLOR: Now the administration has to find that leader and fill a year-long vacancy in a department that's on the front lines in the battle to keep terrorists off of airplanes.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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