says that the administration failed to “fit together” the many “pieces” of evidence into an overall picture. But there is no acknowledgement of the likelihood that this failure—or, rather, as it seems, this paralyzing reluctance—to put the pieces into a coherent whole was driven by the fact that
Oh, and get this. Here is one of the pieces they failed to fit together with other pieces:
Review of Jet Bomb Plot Shows More Missed Clues
By ERIC LIPTON, ERIC SCHMITT and MARK MAZZETTI
New York Times, January 18, 2010
WASHINGTON—Worried about possible terrorist attacks over the Christmas holiday, President Obama met on Dec. 22 with top officials of the C.I.A., F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security, who ticked off a list of possible plots against the United States and how their agencies were working to disrupt them.
In a separate White House meeting that day, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser, John O. Brennan, led talks on Yemen, where a stream of disturbing intelligence had suggested that Qaeda operatives were preparing for some action, perhaps a strike on an American target, on Christmas Day.
Yet in those sessions, government officials never considered or connected links that, with the benefit of hindsight, now seem so evident and indicated that the gathering threat in Yemen would reach into the United States.
Just as lower-level counterterrorism analysts failed to stitch together the pieces of information that would have alerted them to the possibility of a suicide bomber aboard a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas, top national security officials failed to fully appreciate mounting evidence of the dangers beyond the Arabian Peninsula posed by extremists linked to Yemen.
Mr. Obama this month presented his government’s findings on how the plot went undetected. But a detailed review of the episode by The New York Times, including more than two dozen interviews with White House and American intelligence officials and with counterterrorism officials in Europe and Yemen, shows that there were far more warning signs than the administration has acknowledged.
The officials also cited lapses and misjudgments that were not disclosed in the declassified government report released Jan. 7 about what went wrong inside the nation’s counterterrorism network.
In September, for example, a United Nations expert on Al Qaeda warned policy makers in Washington that the type of explosive device used by a Yemeni militant in an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia could be carried aboard an airliner.
In early November, American intelligence authorities say they learned from a communications intercept of Qaeda followers in Yemen that a man named “Umar Farouk”—the first two names of the jetliner suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—had volunteered for a coming operation.
In late December, more intercepts of Qaeda operatives in Yemen, who had previously focused their attacks in the region, mentioned the date of Dec. 25, and suggested that they were “looking for ways to get somebody out” or “for ways to move people to the West,” one senior administration official said.
And the same day those White House meetings on terrorist activities took place, a Qaeda figure made ominous—and seemingly prescient—threats against the United States.
“We carry prayer beads, and with them we carry a bomb for the enemies of God,” a man describing himself as a Qaeda fighter from Yemen announced in a video released on Al Jazeera satellite television. “The issue is between us and America and its allies, and beware, those who stand in the ranks of America.”
The American intelligence network was clearly listening in Yemen and sharing that information, a sign of progress since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Yet the inability to pull the data together or correctly interpret it produced the “systemic failure” that Mr. Obama has vowed to fix and that Congress will examine in hearings this week.
The criticism of the government’s performance has provoked infighting, with rival agencies privately pointing at one another and some intelligence officials complaining about what they see as a White House attempt to deflect responsibility.
Top White House officials, already warning Americans about the possibility of more Qaeda terrorist plots, say they have little patience for squabbling.
“We had a system in place to capture these nuggets because of the investment we put into the collection system,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “We had the ability to map it against a database that was designed specifically to capture that bio data information. We had those pieces in place.
“And we could have brought it together, and we should have brought it together. And that is what upset the president.”
A Growing Threat
The blast that ricocheted last August through the office of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia took only one life—that of the young suicide bomber sent by Al Qaeda in Yemen. But the assassination attempt set off alarms both in the Middle East and in Washington.
From the start of the Obama administration, American officials had been focused on the growing threat in Yemen, where Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen had recently merged and created a dangerous alliance dubbed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The attack against Prince Nayef, who is the country’s chief counterterrorism official, showed that the new group’s ambitions were growing and spurred warnings about the explosive’s usefulness as an aviation threat. Mr. Brennan flew to Saudi Arabia within a week to see him, and the United States swiftly increased its electronic eavesdropping and other spying in Yemen. It also intensified a diplomatic effort to prod Yemen’s leaders to strike back at the militants.
A second alarm came in early November, when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan killed 12 soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas. Over the previous year, American investigators said, Major Hasan had sent more than a dozen e-mail messages to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical, American-born cleric living in Yemen. After ordering a review of any contacts between other possible extremists and Mr. Awlaki, American authorities began collecting more intelligence, officials said.
And some of the tips were increasingly alarming. Qaeda operatives in Yemen were caught discussing an “Umar Farouk” who had recently been in contact with Mr. Awlaki about volunteering for terrorist operations, one official said. American intelligence officials learned of the conversation in November, although it had been intercepted by a foreign intelligence service in August, an administration official said.
The National Security Agency intercepted a second phone conversation in November involving Qaeda members in Yemen, in which they discussed an unnamed Nigerian man who was being groomed for an operation. (Mr. Abdulmutallab is Nigerian.) The next month, intelligence officials eavesdropped on Qaeda operatives who talked of sending a militant toward the West to carry out a strike.
Other intercepted conversations mentioned a significant event on Christmas Day, although it was unclear if the event concerned a strike against an American target or a movement of Qaeda backers, perhaps motivated by the deadly raids that Yemeni forces began in mid-December, officials said.
In the final weeks of the year, American intelligence officials, using spy satellites and communication intercepts, were intently focused on pinpointing the location of Qaeda fighters so the Yemeni military could strike them. By doing so, the American officials hoped to prevent attacks on the United States Embassy in Yemen, personnel or other targets in the region with American ties.
Yet they had unwittingly left themselves vulnerable, American officials now concede. Counterterrorism officials assumed that the militants were not sophisticated or ambitious enough to send operatives into the United States. And no one shifted more intelligence analysts to the task, so that they could have supported the military assaults by Yemen while also scrutinizing all incoming tips for hints about future attacks against Americans, one administration official said.
So, though intelligence analysts had enough information in those days before Christmas to block the suicide bomber on the Northwest flight, they did not act.
“We didn’t know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here,” Mr. Brennan said on Jan. 7 at a White House briefing.
An administration official added, “The puzzle pieces were not being fitted to any type of homeland plot.”
Flaws Laid Bare
The overhaul of America’s intelligence apparatus in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks was intended to break information logjams and ensure that spy agencies traded secrets with one another. It established redundant layers of terrorism analysts to ensure that disparate clues to the next attack would not be ignored or overlooked.
But in the weeks before Christmas, the flaws in the structure were laid bare. No single person or unit was in charge of running down every high-priority tip.
At the National Counterterrorism Center just outside Washington, where specialists can draw on streams of information from more than 80 databases across the government, two teams of intelligence analysts worked on different parts of the same problem. Yet they never collaborated to piece together clues about the Christmas Day attack that were coming in.
A group of “watch list analysts” had been told by the United States Embassy in Nigeria that Mr. Abdulmutallab had been reported missing by his father and was likely to be under “the influence of religious extremists based in Yemen.”
But American officials in Nigeria did not flag Mr. Abdulmutallab for closer scrutiny, and alarms were not raised with the American Embassy in Yemen, either. Inside their electronic files, which contain tips on tens of thousands of cases, the analysts at the counterterrorism center also had a draft C.I.A. memorandum with biographical information about the man.
These tips were enough for the team, made up of about two dozen specialists, to add Mr. Abdulmutallab into the so-called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a tally of 550,000 people worldwide who might be a threat to the United States. The analysts, though, had missed the other threads of information sitting in their computer systems, so they did not put him in a more restrictive database that could have resulted in his inclusion on a “no fly” list.
The second team, a cadre of about 300 “all-source analysts,” failed to make the link as well. They are supposed to be the deep thinkers charged with preparing long-term assessments of terrorist groups, their financing and recruiting methods and their leadership. But officials said that while dozens of such analysts were examining the Yemen threat, they failed to repeatedly scrutinize the raw intelligence for hints of a possible attack on the United States originating in Yemen.
Obama administration officials now say the counterterrorism center needs personnel assigned solely to follow up on all tips, acting like detectives who keep working cases until they are solved.
The analysts are stymied, however, by computer systems that cannot easily search automatically—and repeatedly—for possible links, officials said. Even simple keyword searches are a challenge, according to a 2008 report by investigators for the House Committee on Science and Technology.
“The program not only can’t connect the dots, it can’t find the dots,” Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina and chairman of a House panel that oversees the program, said at the time.
At the C.I.A, some of the information that had been collected was not widely distributed. A draft memorandum on Mr. Abdulmutallab circulated through the agency, with information added by officers inside its Africa division and its counterterrorism center.
But on Christmas Day, the final draft of the memorandum was still sitting in the computer of a junior C.I.A. analyst, waiting until a photo of the young Nigerian was located. Unbeknownst to the analyst, officials said, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s photo had already been delivered to other counterterrorism agencies.
“There were so many things that could have altered the course of events,” one senior administration official said.
The fallout from the terrorist plot has already exposed some simmering tensions, complicating the government’s ability fix the problems.
One senior Obama official faulted Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, for failing to assign extra intelligence analysts to focus on Yemen while also hunting for possible emerging threats to the United States.
For their part, some senior intelligence officials bristled at what they saw as a White House effort to place blame for the breakdowns solely on American spy agencies.
Mr. Blair fought back after early drafts of the White House report on the bombing attempt did not, in his view, adequately acknowledge the difficulties of placing a name on travel watch lists, according to two government officials. The report’s release was delayed several hours, and Mr. Blair managed to get changes made to the final version.
The tensions have also added to the concern expressed by influential lawmakers, who said they were told by administration officials last week in a briefing that the United States believes that Al Qaeda in Yemen could use other young men like Mr. Abdulmutallab as suicide bombers aboard aircraft.
“We don’t know how many more individuals are still out there that were trained by this radical cleric in Yemen,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security intelligence subcommittee, “and may be still trying to pull off the same stunt.”