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How Did Terror Suspect Elude Security?


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility today for giving the explosive device to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He is the 23-year-old Nigerian who was arrested Christmas Day for trying to blow up a Northwest airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit. Also today, President Obama promised to track down those responsible for the attack and to step up air travel security.

President BARACK OBAMA: I have ordered a thorough review, not only of how information related to the subject was handled, but of the overall watch-list system and how it can be strengthened. The second review will examine all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel. We need to determine just how the suspect was able to bring dangerous explosives aboard and aircraft and what additional steps we can take to thwart future attacks. Third, I've directed my National Security team to keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country.

SIEGEL: Abdulmutallab was known to U.S. authorities. He'd been placed on a watch list after his father notified the U.S. authorities in November about his son's extreme views. And yet Abdulmutallab had a visa to travel to the U.S. and was permitted to board a plane in Amsterdam, a plane that was headed for Detroit. Well, Newsweek investigative correspondent, Mark Hosenball has been reporting on how the 23-year-old Nigerian was able to elude security officials and joins us now.

Mark Hosenball, first, tell us about the security watch - the list that Abdulmutallab was placed on after his father went to U.S. officials in Nigeria.

Mr. MARK HOSENBALL (Investigative Correspondent, Newsweek): Well, he wasn't really on a watch list. He was in an intelligence community database, which is the master database, which keeps intelligence on terrorism suspects. That doesn't really constitute a watch list. For him to be put on a watch list, which is maintained by a different agency, they would have to have more information that creates reasonable suspicion that he either has recently engaged in terrorism or is about to engage in terrorism. The database that he was on is maintained by the national counterterrorism center, which is run by the office of the intelligence czar, this new agency set up after 9/11. The database, the watch list used to screen people for travel is maintained by another interagency union at terrorist screening center run by the FBI. So, it's a little bit kind of alphabet soup there of agencies.

SIEGEL: And his name went into the database after his father had gone to talk with U.S. diplomats or other U.S. officials in Nigeria.

Mr. HOSENBALL: That's correct.

SIEGEL: I'm worried about my son. He's�

Mr. HOSENBALL: Correct.

SIEGEL: Don't know where he is. He is hanging out with Yemenites.

Mr. HOSENBALL: He specific mentioned Yemen and as I understand that the mention of Yemen did trigger further inquiries by one or more U.S. intelligence agencies. But we don't really know much about those inquiries except that they did not, at least in a timely fashion, produce the kind of information that might have led to this guy being upgraded to watch lists and maybe banned from being allowed on the airplanes.

SIEGEL: In theory, should a report like that have made it to people who were looking at visas at airports all around the world - should someone on that basis by the standards of the intelligence community and counterintelligence folks, should they have been alerted to that or is that a garden-variety complaint that you have in this case?

Mr. HOSENBALL: It sounds like they're treating it under the current rules. And so the issue is, are the rules correct? As more common or garden-variety complaint, as I understand it, and there's been congressional testimony on this very recently from the person who runs the terrorist screening center, the unit that prepares the no-fly list, you have to have reasonable suspicion - whatever that means, and it's a pretty elastic term - before you put somebody on a list that would restrict their travel or require them to be screened more thoroughly. The view of the intelligence community on the information from the father received about this guy is that that did not constitute reasonable suspicion.

SIEGEL: A couple of other points: I gather that the young man bought his ticket with cash. Isn't that supposed to be a great red flag that goes up when people buy a ticket into the U.S. with cash?

Mr. HOSENBALL: It is supposed to be a great red flag. And again, the further question would be if he bought it the same day that the plane took off, that's supposed to be an additional indicator. So, with cash, same-day plane took off - I'm not sure on the later point but I have read that he bought it with cash. However, from the sound of things, the ticket was bought in Nigeria, and it may well be - in fact, I suspect it probably is the case - that information as to the circumstances of him buying the ticket with cash probably never made it through the system to the United States. It wouldn't surprise me if that's the case.

SIEGEL: So, Abdulmutallab was in a database - you say, watch list is too strong a word - in a database. How many names would be in that database?

Mr. HOSENBALL: I believe about 550,000 although some of them may be duplicates or, you know, different names from the same person.

SIEGEL: And then to actually wonder how many people are on a no-fly list such that if they turned up�

Mr. HOSENBALL: On the no-fly list, there's less than 4,000 as it was explained to me.

SIEGEL: Fewer than 4,000 people.


SIEGEL: So, I guess, you wouldn't very naturally catch a new suspect that way, you would catch a known offender, or some such.

Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, as I understand it you don't get on the no-fly list unless they have pretty specific information that you were about to attack an airplane. So, that's a pretty limited - presumably a pretty limited category of people.

SIEGEL: So far as you know, are U.S., Dutch counterintelligence relations typically effective, good, and healthy or is there any strain between them that you know of?

Mr. HOSENBALL: I don't think there's any strain. I don't know that the U.S. - I know some - a little bit about the Dutch intelligence service. I don't know that the U.S. government treats it very seriously but I'm not aware of any strains. But again, the Dutch could only operate here on the standard procedures and on information that they had from the Americans. It's not clear that they had any information that should or would have called their attention to this guy.

SIEGEL: Mark Hosenball, investigative correspondent for Newsweek thanks for talking with us.

Mr. HOSENBALL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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