The would-be Christmas Day bomber boarded his flight in Amsterdam to frigid Detroit with no coat — perhaps the final warning sign that went unnoticed leading up to what could have been a catastrophic terrorist attack, lawmakers were told.
Congress got its first behind-the-scenes look Wednesday at the botched airline bombing and officials said the security failures were even worse than President Barack Obama outlined last week. It remains unclear, however, how those failures will be fixed.
“He was flying into Detroit without a coat. That’s interesting if you’ve ever been in Detroit in December,” New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said after a briefing by presidential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.
National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter briefed the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors and Brennan took questions from the House in overlapping sessions Wednesday.
Congress wants to know how Obama plans to improve an intelligence system that failed to recognize the significance of repeated warning signs that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly was planning an attack. The Nigerian also showed up at the Amsterdam airport without any luggage — another sign that officials acknowledge should have prompted more scrutiny.
Critical warning signs arrived even earlier, in mid-October, when a National Security Agency wiretap picked up discussion out of Yemen that referred to a Nigerian being trained for a special mission, according to a House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
Obama has ordered agencies to review and tighten their procedures but has mostly left it up to them to figure out how.
“There were more dots crying out to be connected than I realized,” Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “If any two of the dots were connected, it would have moved the organization to quickly connect the other dots. An improvement or good luck in any number of areas probably could have broken this wide open.”
In November, Abdulmutallab’s father in Nigeria reported to the U.S. Embassy that his son had gone to Yemen and had fallen under the influence of radicals there.
Another point of failure, acknowledged last week by the White House, was that a misspelling of Abdulmutallab’s name at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria initially made the State Department believe he did not have a U.S. visa and therefore was less of an immediate concern.
“A system shouldn’t get stymied by a single misspelling,” Holt said. “If you mistype something in Google, Google comes back and says maybe you want to look at this other spelling.”
Authorities said Abdulmutallab got through security with a bomb in his pants, and Pascrell said terrorists would continue finding such weaknesses even if officials require full-body scans.
“If we think we’re going to stop the terrorists from getting on planes and trains by technology we are dead wrong, and I don’t want us to be dead,” Pascrell said. “We need to understand that this is a human intervention situation and that we must spend more time at putting boots on the ground and people behind the lines who understand what’s going on, who can know what the enemy is all about.”
The FBI says Abdulmutallab tried to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was carrying nearly 300 people, by injecting chemicals into a package of explosives concealed in his underwear. He has pleaded not guilty to a six-count indictment.
At least part of the administration’s response involves lowering the threshold to get potential terrorists onto no-fly lists, an intelligence official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the plans. Blair outlined that measure in the Wednesday’s briefings.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., a member of the committee that controls the purse strings for homeland security spending, is calling for Obama to ask the airlines to provide passenger lists to U.S. Customs and Border Protection 24 hours in advance, to deploy more behavior detection officers at airports to spot potential terrorists and expand the purchase of imaging body scanners at U.S. airports, among other measures.
Congress is planning a slew of hearings on the Detroit bombing attempt. Blair has at least two more on his immediate calendar in the next week, and the House Intelligence Committee will be scheduling another soon, Chairman Sylvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said.