WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., took testimony Wednesday from top officials of the U.S. intelligence and homeland security communities about the errors the federal government made leading up to the December 25 terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines jet and changes that need to be made to prevent future attacks within our borders.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) to give their first testimony to Congress since the Christmas Day attack and discuss how they are strengthening the system, given the evolving nature of the terrorist threat.
“Clearly, some elements of our defenses against terrorism are not working as we need them to be. We need to find out what and why and fix them,” Lieberman said. “I know it is not realistic to promise that we will stop every terrorist attack on our homeland, but that certainly should be our goal. The decisions of the public servants who work so hard to protect us from terrorists every day are crucial and consequential. Every decision they make can be the difference between life and death for their fellow citizens.
“We must take a hard look at the systemic failures that occurred with this latest attack. I am not interested in knocking down the new walls of homeland security we have built since 9-11, but in repairing and reinforcing them so they better protect the American people from terrorist attack.”
Collins said: “Good intelligence is critical to our ability to stop terrorist plots and that is why I am very concerned about the decision to quickly charge (Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk) Abdulmutallab in civilian court. By doing so, we lost an opportunity to secure additional intelligence from him – not only about his own training, but intelligence that possibly would allow us to uncover other plots that are emanating from Yemen. We know that interrogations of terrorists can provide critical intelligence, but the protections afforded by our civil justice system, as opposed to the military tribunal system, can encourage terrorists to ‘lawyer-up’ and stop answering questions. It appears to me that we may have lost an opportunity to secure some valuable intelligence information in this case. To charge Abdulmutallab in the civilian criminal system without consulting three of our nation’s top intelligence officials is very troubling.”
Law enforcement, intelligence, and homeland security agencies uncovered several terrorist plots in 2009, most notably the cases of Najibullah Zazi and David Headley.
Yet, each witness conceded a series of mistakes in piecing together indicators that might have prevented Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane bound for the United Sates. Among those errors was a failure to put the young man on the watch list after his father expressed fears about his son’s intentions; a failure to analyze and comprehend the information that had been collected by the intelligence community about Abdulmutallab; a failure to pull his visa; and a failure to detect explosives he carried onto the airplane.
Leiter said the criteria for putting people on the watch list were being revised to include more people and Secretary Napolitano said DHS is working to develop more advanced airport screening techniques.
The witnesses also said they were not consulted by the Department of Justice on prosecuting Abdulmutallab in civilian, rather than military, court. Nor were they consulted on the interrogation of the suspect after he was apprehended. Leiter said that although the NCTC has access to all intelligence agency databases, it is not able to conduct a computer search across all of those databases.
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) were created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), crafted by HSGAC in response to the 9/11 Commission recommendations. The DNI was intended to integrate the federal government’s 16 intelligence agencies. NCTC was meant to create a single place in the government that would assess terrorism threats using the full resources and knowledge of the intelligence community.
HSGAC also led Senate efforts to create the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002.