WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Wednesday pressed federal intelligence, border, and aviation security officials to close the gaps that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a plane for the United States carrying explosives on his body.
At issue were two of the most important components of the government’s efforts to deny terrorists the ability to travel to the United States: the creation and use of the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) and the passenger pre-screening mechanisms that use this list and its subsets to identify dangerous individuals and stop them from getting on airplanes.
Lieberman said anyone with ties to terrorist activities who is placed on the TSDB, commonly known at the terrorist watchlist, should be required to undergo secondary screening at airports. And he said the U.S. needs to expand pre-screening of travelers bound for the U.S. to obtain document and identity verification data at least 24 hours before flight time.
“On Christmas Day, the federal government was unable to pull together all the intelligence in its possession to effectively analyze it and form a coherent picture of the actual risk,” Lieberman said. “This was not a failure to collect information, and, unlike the missteps leading up to 9/11, it was not a failure to share it. All the dots were on the same table but our government was unable to connect them – to separate this information out of the enormous mass of information the government collects and shares — so that this terrorist could be stopped before he acted.
“In an era when Google can aggregate information from scores of websites and databases throughout the world very quickly, it is unacceptable that NCTC does not have the same ability to search and aggregate information across our government’s intelligence databases,” Lieberman continued. “I think we also need automated mechanisms to connect disparate data points 24/7, 365 days a year, and flag potential threats for analysts to examine. These systems are widely used in the private sector, and need to be adopted by our intelligence agencies as soon as possible.”
Senator Collins called the December 25 failed attack “a case of missed opportunities. From my perspective, the State Department clearly had sufficient information to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa. State Department officials already had decided to question Abdulmutallab about his ties to extremists if he chose to renew his visa. How he could have been a threat to the United States in the future based on his extremist ties, but not a sufficient current threat to suspend his visa defies both logic and common sense. Had the State Department taken this action, it would have prevented him from traveling to the United States. A missed opportunity.”
The hearing, entitled “The Lessons and Implications of the Christmas Day Attack: Watchlisting and Pre-Screening,” was the Committee’s fourth hearing in a series examining reforms made to our intelligence systems five years after the 9/11 commission recommended them.
Witnesses at the hearing included Russell Travers, Deputy Director, Information Sharing and Knowledge Development at the National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence; Timothy Healy, Director, Terrorist Screening Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation; Gale Rossides, Acting Administrator, Transportation Security Administration; and David Aguilar, Acting Deputy Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.