Senior national security officials admit that systemic intelligence failures led to a would-be airliner bomber being allowed to board a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. The officials testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, with some lawmakers angry the terror suspect will be tried in a federal court instead of a military tribunal.
National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter spoke bluntly to Senate lawmakers.
"Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should not have stepped onto a plane on Christmas Day," he declared. "The counterterrorism system collectively failed and I along with Director [of National Intelligence Dennis] Blair and Secretary [of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano and others want to tell you and the American people the same thing we told the president, that we have to do better," he said.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate a homemade bomb onboard the Northwest Airlines flight, but it failed to detonate.
Leiter said that contrary to what many people believe, the intelligence failure is different from the one that preceded the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001," he said.
"It was not a failure to share intelligence. Instead, it was a failure to connect, integrate and fully understand the intelligence we had collected."
Senator Joseph Lieberman said intelligence officials need to find a way to cross-check names of suspected terrorists on various databases to strengthen national security. He said it is "infuriating" that Abdulmutallab was able to board the plane, citing "systemic failures and human errors." In cases where government employees failed to fulfill their responsibilities, Senator Lieberman demanded accountability.
"In these cases, they should be disciplined or removed," he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano indirectly laid the blame for the foiled attack on the intelligence officials sitting next to her, pointing out that Abdulmutallab was not on the no-fly list.
But Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that since 2008, there has been political pressure to take names off the list because it causes inconveniences for average passengers.
"Shame on us for giving in to that pressure. We have now greatly expanded the no-fly list from what it was on December 24," he responded.
Several senators expressed anger about the Obama administration's decision to try Abdumutallab in U.S. federal court, with all the rights that that entails, instead of trying him in a military tribunal.
Republican Senator John McCain said unclassified reports show the alleged bomber was providing information to law enforcement officials until he was provided a lawyer as part of the civilian justice process.
"If that is the case, I think it is a terrible mistake. I think it is a terrible, terrible mistake when it is pretty clear that this individual did not act alone," said McCain.
National Intelligence Director Blair told the Senate committee that he was not consulted on whether Abdulmutallab should be questioned by the recently created High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and the National Counterterrorism Center Director Leiter said they too were not consulted on the decision as to who should question Abdumutallab.