The core of the U.S. government’s thinking that allowed Mutallab onto U.S. bound plane

On the basis of Abdul Mutallab’s father’s communications with American authorities in Nigeria, the CIA was fully aware that Mutallab had left his family to join Islamic extremists in Yemen. But the CIA did not translate this knowledge into the conclusion that Mutallab should not be allowed to board an American airliner. Why? What went wrong? A December 31 piece in the New York Times, “Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror,” takes us into CIA’s thought process. The answer that emerges with utter clarity is that the CIA would only stop Mutallab from getting on a plane if they had specific information that he was on a terrorist mission. The mere knowledge that he was an Islamic extremist very likely associated with al Qaeda was not enough to get CIA to require additional screening of Mutallab. Therefore, pace the excuses of Obama administration officials, it is not true that the failure to keep Mutallab off a plane was the due to some technical or mechanical failure to collate the different information about him coming from different sources. No. The failure to keep him off a plane was due to the fact that he did not rise to the level of the U.S. government’s explicit criterion for keeping a person off a plane.

The underlying belief that drives the Obama national security system (and the Bush national security system before it) is that Islam is not the problem. Only actual terrorism is the problem, not Islam or even extreme Islam.

Here is a section from the Times article, with my bracketed and bolded comments.

The first sign of a threat came in August, when the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic eavesdropping around the world, intercepted the Qaeda conversations about the mysterious, unidentified Nigerian. That same month, Mr. Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen and apparently soon began preparing for the Christmas Day attack.

Three months later, in November, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father, a former senior Nigerian government official and a prominent banker, became panicked about his son’s turn to radicalism, according to an interview with a family cousin. The father beseeched Nigerian and American officials to intervene before his son did harm, said the cousin, who declined to be identified by name, citing the family’s desire for privacy.

The cousin, who attended a gathering of the family on Sunday, said that what alarmed Mr. Mutallab were the text messages his son had sent from Yemen. He said the son told the father that “he had found a new religion, the real Islam.” The son also texted that his family “should just forget about him; he’s never coming back,” the cousin recounted. [LA replies: Consider the unavoidable significance, to U.S. counterterrorism personnel, of a young Muslim man who leaves his family saying he’s found the “real Islam” and that he’s never returning. In America we have had numerous cases of young U.S. Muslims who have disappeared from their U.S. homes and then turned up as terrorists or fighters for al Qaeda in some Muslim country. Therefore the information that Mutallab’s father gave to CIA was fully sufficient to tell them that Mutallab had become a jihadi.]

Mr. Mutallab consulted with the onetime national security adviser to a former Nigerian president. He also approached Nigeria’s National Intelligence Agency. Then he went to the American Embassy in Abuja, the cousin said. There, he said, American officials essentially ignored him.

American officials contend that they took the father’s account seriously, but that he never signaled that his son might carry out a terrorist attack. Still, on Nov. 20, based on the father’s meeting, embassy officials wrote a cable called a Visas Viper—government jargon for a warning about terrorism—and sent it to the counterterrorism center. [LA replies: ” … but he never signaled that his son might carry out a terrorist attack.” Notice how the American officials keep making specific knowledge of a likely or impending terrorist attack the criterion for taking any action to stop Mutallab. This is exactly like Condoleezza Rice telling the 9/11 Commission with her smug tone and inappropriate smile, “Commissioner, if I had known that terrorists would drive an airliner into the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, I would have done everything in my power to stop that.” Notice the absurdity. The present American officials, just like Rice, feel they have to have specific knowledge of a planned terrorist attack before they take any steps to isolate an individual or keep him off a plane, whereas in reality any jihadist, anyone connected with Al Qaeda, should (a) have his visa revoked, or (b) not be able to get on a plane, or (c) at the very least face the most rigorous screening before being able to do so.]

The cable referred to the father’s statement that his son had fallen under “the influence of religious extremists based in Yemen,” an American official said.

The Americans could have revoked Mr. Abdulmutallab’s visa, but they chose not to. Some 1,700 visas have been revoked since the Sept. 11 attacks on grounds of suspected terrorist connections, State Department officials said, but that step is almost always taken only after a review by counterterrorism officials in Washington. [LA replies: so presumably CIA counterterrorism reviewed Mutallab’s case, and then proceeded NOT to revoke his visa. As I’ve explained above, they had to know that he had become a jihadist, because of what he had told his family about finding the real Islam and never seeing them again, which as we’ve seen in U.S. coverage of “disappearing” U.S. Muslim youth, is a sure sign that they’ve gone to join al Qaeda. So U.S. officials had enough information to keep Mutallab off a plane. But they didn’t do so, because they had made the criterion for keeping a person off a plane, not that he’s a jihadist, but that he “might carry out a terrorist attack.”]

Based on the father’s account, C.I.A. officials in Nigeria also prepared a separate report compiling biographical information about Mr. Abdulmutallab, including his educational background and the fact that he was considering pursuing academic studies in Islamic law in Yemen.

That cable was sent to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., but not disseminated to other intelligence agencies, government officials said on Wednesday.

Some officials criticized the C.I.A. for withholding some of the information about Mr. Abdulmutallab, saying it might have prompted a broader investigation into him and possibly would have led to putting him on a watch list.

One intelligence official said that the C.I.A. should probably have shared the cable, but he said there was nothing that the C.I.A. knew at the time that suggested Mr. Abdulmutallab was planning to carry out a terrorist attack.

“You had a young man who was becoming increasingly pious and was turning his back on his family’s wealthy lifestyle,” the intelligence official said. “That alone makes him neither St. Francis nor a deadeyed killer. [LA replies: There we have it again. The U.S. policy under Obama was that only specific information that Mutallab was a “dead-eyed killer” attempting to perform a terrorist attack would have been enough for U.S. officials to keep him off a plane or subject him to additional screening before letting him on a plane. The fact that he was undoubtedly a jihad supporter was not enough to get him automatically subjected to additional screening and pat downs. Grandmothers and children from middle America get subjected to additional screening and patdowns, but a 23 year old known jihadist from Nigeria does not.]

“Every piece of data, of course, looks different when you know the answer, as everyone does now.”

At the counterterrorism center, analysts looked at the cable from the embassy in Nigeria and deliberated over just how severe a threat Mr. Abdulmutallab presented. Sometime during that period, other information began flowing in that terrorist groups might be planning an attack around Christmas. But the intelligence analysts did not connect this to the story of Mr. Abdulmutallab.

There were conflicting reports Wednesday about whether counterterrorism center analysts had at their disposal all of the details of the National Security Agency communications intercepts in August.

What is clear, however, is that the center’s officials concluded that the information they had about Mr. Abdulmutallab was not worrisome enough to do anything more than add his name to the biggest—and least scrutinized—of four intelligence databases. This list includes 550,000 names, and essentially serves as holding area for cases that need more research.

The government chose not to add Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name to a much smaller, more refined watch list that would have required that he be pulled over and patted down before boarding a plane, or blocked entirely from flying to the United States. [LA replies: again, this proves my point. They unquestionably had sufficient information that Mutallab was a jihad supporter, but this wasn’t enough for them to do anything about him except add him to a meaningless list of 550,000 persons.]

Now, supplementing the above, is a segment of Chris Wallace’s interview of Obama’s deputy national security advisor on terrorism, John Brennan, last Sunday on Fox News, along with my bracketed comment:

WALLACE: You’re leading the review, as we pointed out at the beginning, of what the president calls the human and systemic failures that led to Abdulmutallab being on that plane on Christmas day—intelligence screening. From what you’ve learned so far, what was the failure?

BRENNAN: Well, we’re still going through those reviews that have come in to the White House, and I think there are a combination of issues that we’re looking at.

First of all, the president is very determined to make sure we identify what the problems were and take corrective actions immediately, whether or not they’re individual cases or whether or not they’re more systemic issues that we have to address.

I think it was a combination of things. We had information that came from Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father. His name was put into what’s called the TIDE record system.

We also had, though, intelligence, snippets of intelligence that came in, that didn’t refer directly to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab but had little bits and pieces of information that we now know, in hindsight, related to Mr. Abdulmutallab.

We need to, as a system, make sure we can put those pieces together so that we take every step possible to prevent these individuals from …

WALLACE: But if you …

BRENNAN: … getting on planes.

WALLACE: … can characterize it without getting into the details, was it that there was a smoking gun that was ignored? Was it that there were bits and pieces of information that—and the puzzle wasn’t put together?

Or was that it that there’s continued division, rivalry, among the various intelligence agencies?

BRENNAN: Well, a couple things. One is that there was no smoking gun. There was no piece of intelligence that said, “This guy’s a terrorist. He’s going to get on a plane.” No, not whatsoever. [LA replies: There you have it again. Only a “smoking gun” level of evidence showing that Mutallab was a terrorist would have been enough to get the Obama government to keep Mutallab off a plane or to screen him further. Which means what? It means that the Obama government have no problem with jihadists. They have no problem with people with extreme Muslim beliefs. They have no problem with people whom they have strong reason to believe are al Qaeda supporters. They only have a problem with people of whom they possess knowledge—“smoking gun” knowledge—that they are planning or are about to commit a terrorist act.]

It was the failure to integrate and piece together those bits and pieces of information. But it’s much different than prior to 9/11. Before then, I think there was really a culture of keeping information to the individual agencies and departments.

In the review so far, there’s no indication whatsoever that any agency or department was not trying to share information.

There were some lapses. There were some human errors. There were some failures of the system to allow that to happen at the speed of light. And that’s what we’re talking about, information that comes in to one agency or department that has to get somewhere else so that actions can be taken.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

More gnostic magical operations. “Let’s Pretend.” In this case, “Let’s pretend that it is possible for us to know when a jihadi launches a mission and thus turns into a terrorist.” It’s the intelligence version of the modern notion of law enforcement. The cops are not there to prevent crime—to know who the bad guys are and knock heads and kick them out of town before they do anything. Oh, no; that would be a violation of the bad guys’ civil rights. The cops are there only to pursue criminals once they have actually begun to commit a crime, and then perform magical operations over them—long judicial procedures sometimes eventuating in a period of incarceration and sodomy, followed by release—to prevent them from committing crimes in the future. This is just what happened to Mutallab’s handlers in Yemen. They were caught and incarcerated for a time at Guantanamo, then released.

Ditto for the Bush reticence about naming our Saudi enemies. “Let’s Pretend” that the Saudis are our friends.

Bill Carpenter writes:

The dog in the manger. It won’t stop jihadists and other invaders and it won’t let Americans stop them either.

A. Zarkov writes:

Elite opinion in the U.S., meaning academics, intellectuals, policy analysts, and many politicians don’t regard terrorism as an existential threat to the U.S. They look at it as more of an annoyance that needs management. John Mueller lays out this position in his book Overblown. The leftist Matthew Yglesias, recently posted this comment on his blog:

Obviously, people shouldn’t be lighting anything on fire inside airplanes. That said, all the big Christmas airline incident really shows to me is how little punch our dread terrorist adversaries really pack. Once again, this seems like a pretty unserious plot. And even if you did manage to blow up an airplane in mid-air, that would be both a very serious crime and a great tragedy, but hardly a first-order national security threat.

Ultimately, it does no favors to anyone to blow this sort of thing out of proportion. The United States could not, of course, be “devastated” by anything resembling this scheme. We ought to be clear on that fact. We want to send the message around the world that this sort of vile attempt to slaughter innocent people is not, at the end of the day, anything resembling a serious challenge to American power. It’s attempted murder, it’s wrong, we should try to stop it, but it’s really not much more than that (emphasis added).

Critics of the “war on terror” like Yglesias consider all the terror events to be merely instances of civil crimes to be handled through the criminal justice system. To them the whole concept of any kind of war being waged by Islam against the West is utterly bogus. Al Qaeda is nothing more than a new Mafia that speaks Arabic rather than Italian. Their whole case rests on the sparseness of terror attacks in the past. They extrapolate the past into the future and conclude the terrorist threat is overblown. This is what happens when one is constrained by linear thinking, which reasons as follows. If 10,000 Muslims perpetrate 10 terrorist acts, then a million Muslims will perpetrate only 1,000 acts in the same time interval. This reasoning fails to appreciate synergism that will occur once the Muslim population exceeds some critical mass. Once the Muslim population gets large enough they can change the politics of the host country. They can gain more and more power through bribes and threats—in other words they have the power of coherence. The American and European elites don’t really recognize or appreciate the coherence effect. This is why elite critics constantly downplay the threat. So I’m not surprised that CIA and Homeland Security don’t operate effectively.

Tim W. writes:

This is the liberal ACLU theory of criminal law applied to national security. No matter how dangerous someone appears to be, he cannot be questioned, wiretapped, or otherwise monitored until he actually begins to do something violent. Our government has now taken ACLU premises to the international arena. We can’t keep a foreigner off a flight to America merely because he denounces the U.S. and embraces Jihad. He has to be shown to be actually carrying out a specific terrorist attack. Merely supporting terrorism against the West as his ideological worldview isn’t enough.

LA replies:

Yes. Once upon a time, under the rules in effect prior to 9/11, a terror suspect could not have his papers or computer examined unless he was shown to be (I think I have this right) an active member of a terrorist organization. This is why the FBI turned down FBI agents’ request to look at the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker,” after he was arrested on immigration charges. After 9/11, that rule was changed and authorities could more readily get a warrant to look at someone’s papers.

But now we’ve gone back, not just to the pre-9/11 regime, but to something much worse.

Pre-9/11, there had to be proof that someone was part of a terrorist group in order for authorities to search his papers.

Today, there has to be proof that someone is planning a terrorist attack before authorities can pat him down prior to letting him board an airliner.

Unless, of course, he’s just chosen at random for a patting down. In that case, anyone can be patted down, so long as he or she is someone who could not possibly be a terrorist.

Ferg writes:

You say:

The underlying belief that drives the Obama national security system (and the Bush national security system before it) is that Islam is not the problem. Only actual terrorism is the problem, not Islam or even extreme Islam.

And the article says:

American officials contend that they took the father’s account seriously, but that he never signaled that his son might carry out a terrorist attack.

OK, so my father tells you that I am a member of a group that believes it is right and proper to have sex with underage girls. Still, my father has not not said or signaled that I plan to have sex with your underage daughter this night, and I also I have not given any indication that tonight is the night; so you let me go out with her. Does that about describe the situation when this man was allowed on the U.S. bound airplane?

LA replies:


Ferg replies:

I think I am begining to understand the code.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 05, 2010 04:45 PM | Send

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