'System Failure' In U.S. Screening For Terrorists

A passenger walks past waiting jets at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 4. Dozens of names have been added to the government's terrorist watch lists and "no fly" list after a failed terrorist attack on Christmas. (AP)

The White House concluded in a report issued Thursday that "a series of systematic breakdowns" contributed to the failure to prevent the failed Christmas Day bombing of a trans-Atlantic airliner bound for Detroit.

The unclassified summary of the swiftly completed review said the unsuccessful attack exposed failures when it came to assembling and analyzing disparate pieces of intelligence, as well as gaps in the U.S. government's procedures for placing potential terrorists on federal watch lists.

Obama admitted that spy agencies had collected, but failed to connect, pieces of information that should have led authorities to pay greater attention to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian student who allegedly tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253.

Major Watch Lists

Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) -- Run by the National Counterterrorism Center, this database contains intelligence on some 550,000 suspected terrorists and their associates.

Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) — The official terrorism watch list contains more than 400,000 names of people for whom authorities have a "reasonable suspicion" they are tied to terrorism. It is run by the Terrorist Screening Center, housed at the FBI, and can be accessed by a wide range of U.S government officials.

The "Selectee" List — Originally run by the Transportation Security Administration, this list is a much more selective collection of names of people with suspected terrorist ties who must undergo secondary screening procedures before boarding airplanes. Now maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, it contains about 14,000 names.

The "No Fly" List — Only about 4,000 names are on the no-fly list, including al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Originally a TSA database, the Terrorist Screening Center now compiles this list of suspected terrorists who are believed to pose a direct threat to aviation or national security.

"At this stage in the review process, it appears that this incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a system failure across organizations and agencies," President Obama said on Thursday.

He ordered a set of changes in counterterrorism procedures, including how the watch list system operates, as well as new efforts to develop more sophisticated explosives detection technology for airport screening checkpoints.

The White House review found the complex system of maintaining multiple watch lists "is not broken," but John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser who supervised the review, said the process of feeding information into the watch list system must be strengthened.

By design, the government has placed different agencies in charge of several separate databases and watch lists, deliberately splitting responsibility between the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies.

The process starts on the intelligence-gathering side, where a tremendous flood of information pours into the National Counterterrorism Center, a clearinghouse agency created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and run by the director of national intelligence.

On Thursday, Obama ordered U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to bolster their efforts to connect the various disparate threads of data on suspected terrorists and to follow through more thoroughly on threat information — a directive that will very likely increase the amount of time U.S. analysts spend working on these watch lists.

Thousands Of New Names Daily

Each day, the NCTC receives leads on many thousands of individuals who may be associated in some fashion with terrorism. The names come in via more than 30 different government agencies and networks. Some might be reported by clandestine CIA officers overseas or by FBI agents. Others might be picked up from telephone calls or e-mails intercepted overseas by the National Security Agency.

In the Abdulmutallab case, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria received a warning about the Nigerian student from his father back in November and sent the information to the NCTC. But when the State Department ran the student's name against its consular data, it failed to discover that Abdulmutallab held a U.S. visa, largely because of a misspelling in the database, according to the White House review.

Part of the problem is sheer volume. At the NCTC, a staff that numbers only in the dozens must process these thousands of names daily and decide when there is enough information to place them into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. TIDE is the central repository for all intelligence on possible terrorists.

"The challenge here is to sort out from the noise what is worth paying closer attention to," says one official familiar with the process.

Currently, there are some 550,000 individuals listed in the TIDE database, although the information is rarely complete and the terrorist connections may turn out to be insignificant.

In response to the Abdulmutallab episode, Obama already ordered some changes, such as requiring the State Department to include current visa information in its reporting on possible terrorist connections.

Which Names Are Worthy Of Attention?

"Mere guesses or inarticulate 'hunches' are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion," Timothy Healy, the director for the Terrorist Screening Center, told Congress last month to explain the legal standard.

The Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB, which currently has more than 400,000 names on it, can be accessed by domestic law enforcement agencies, as well as the intelligence community and the State Department.

But for the vast majority of those 400,000 names, no overt actions will be taken. When customs officers, local police officers or consular officers encounter one of these individuals, they report it to the Terrorist Screening Center, which receives about 150 such calls each day.

"All positive matches, which are approximately 30 to 40 percent of all reported encounters, are forwarded to the FBI's Counterterrorism Division for an appropriate law enforcement response," Healy told Congress. "The response could range from arresting the subject, if there is an outstanding federal warrant, to merely gathering additional intelligence information about the subject."

Many Suspicious Names, Multiple Lists

All the other government watch lists, including the "no fly" list, are drawn from the broad TSDB. But the criteria for the others are significantly more stringent, including a very clear connection to terrorism.

When it comes to air travel, for example, there are at least two lists run by the Terrorist Screening Center that the officials at the Transportation Security Administration consult. One, called the "selectee list," includes about 14,000 names of people who are allowed to fly but will be subjected to mandatory secondary screening.

The no-fly list is even more elite, containing a mere 4,000 names. To make this list, authorities at the Terrorist Screening Center need to have a "reasonable suspicion" that a suspect poses a serious, terrorist-related threat to air travel.

After the Abdulmutallab episode, officials went back and reviewed these more selective lists, adding at least dozens of additional terrorist suspects to the no-fly list.

And Obama ordered additional checks that are likely to add more names to the list in the coming weeks.

"The U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack," Obama said. "Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had."

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