Officials Take Blame For Christmas Day Security Gaps In hearings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Obama administration officials accepted blame for intelligence failures leading to the attempted attack on a Detroit-bound plane. Republicans questioned why the suspect is being tried in federal, rather than military, courts.
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Officials Take Blame For Christmas Day Security Gaps

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Officials Take Blame For Christmas Day Security Gaps

Officials Take Blame For Christmas Day Security Gaps

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On Capitol Hill today, not one, not two, but four hearings that focused on the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing. Administration officials accepted blame for intelligence failures and they heard sharp criticism from Republicans over why the suspect is being tried in federal rather than military court.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: A who's who of Obama administration national security officials paraded to the Capitol to answer questions about how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to board Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, the place where the dots should've been connected, set the day's tone appearing before members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Head, National Counterterrorism Center): Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should not have stepped onto a plane on Christmas Day. The counterterrorism system collectively failed, and I, along with director Blair and Secretary Napolitano and others, want to tell you and the American people the same thing we told the president, that we have to do better.

NAYLOR: As for how the system failed, there was much talk about lists and why the bombing suspect Abdulmutallab's name appeared on some but not others. One reason, State Department official Patrick Kennedy told the Senate Judiciary Committee, was because someone had trouble spelling the suspect's name after his father reported his concerns to the U.S. Embassy.

Mr. PATRICK KENNEDY (Department of State): The Department of State misspelled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's name in a visa despite the report. As a result, we did not add the information about his current visa in that report.

NAYLOR: Kennedy said the State Department now has a version of spell check software available to check names after visas are granted. Republicans pressed officials as to why Abdulmutallab is being tried and prosecuted by civilians as a criminal rather than by the military as an enemy combatant. Many GOP senators believe Abdulmutallab would've spilled a lot more information about his possible contacts before military interrogators.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Judiciary Committee that it was a decision made on the fly by FBI agents on the ground in Detroit. That explanation didn't sit well with the senior Republican on the panel, Alabama's Jeff Sessions. First, Mueller.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (FBI Director): In this particular case, in fast-moving events, decisions were made appropriately, I believe very appropriately, given the situation.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I don't think you can say it's appropriate. We don't know what that individual learned when he was working with al-Qaida, and we may never know because he now has got a lawyer who's telling him to be quiet.

NAYLOR: At the Homeland Security Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair seemed to agree with Republicans. Blair testified he was never consulted about how Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated. He said a special interrogation group for high-value suspects, the so-called HIG formed by the Obama administration, was not convened, in part, he said, because it was designed for suspects arrested overseas.

Mr. DENNIS BLAIR (Director of National Intelligence): We did not invoke the HIG. In this case we should've. Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people and, you know, we didn't put it then. That's what we will do now.

NAYLOR: And now the administration has a new problem on its hands - finding a new nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration. Erroll Southers withdrew his name today. Southers' nomination had been blocked by Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who argued Southers wanted to allow TSA screeners to collectively bargain for a labor agreement. Southers said he was tired of being in limbo.

Mr. ERROLL SOUTHERS (Transportation Security Administration, Counterterrorism Expert): My family and I have endured quite a bit of unexpected turbulence here, as it relates to what we consider to be non-issues regarding my expertise and experience. And, quite frankly, it was just time to move on.

NAYLOR: Southers says the TSA needs a leader now. No indication yet of who the administration is looking at to fill that role.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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