Security officials flagged the name of the Christmas Day airline bombing suspect for extra screening after he was already in the air, U.S. officials said Thursday as they prepared to release the clearest look yet at government missteps in the near-catastrophe.
The White House on Thursday planned to make public a declassified account of how a suspected terrorist slipped through post-Sept. 11 security to board the plane with an explosive. President Barack Obama was to address the nation about the findings and recommendations. Obama was also to reveal new steps intended to thwart terrorist attacks, as he promised earlier in the week.
No firings over the December security debacle are expected - for now, at least.
In an interview published Thursday by USA Today, national security adviser Gen. James Jones said people who read the report will feel "a certain shock."
Elaborating, Jones said, "The man on the street ... will be surprised that these correlations weren't made" between clues pointing toward a threat from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Even though the 23-year-old Nigerian man was in a database of possible terrorists, he allegedly managed to fly from Nigeria through Amsterdam to Detroit with an explosive concealed on his body.
Homeland Security officials say they had flagged Abdulmutallab as someone who should go through additional security screening upon landing. In a statement early Thursday, the department said the alleged bomber's potential ties to extremists came up in a routine check of passengers en route to the U.S. from overseas.
Customs and Border Protection officials screen passengers against terrorist watch lists before international flights leave for the U.S., then check names against a different database while the flight is in the air. It was during this second check that officials caught information Abdulmutallab's father had provided to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria a month earlier, warning the U.S. that his son had drifted into extremism in the al-Qaida hotbed of Yemen.
Even if Customs and Border Protection officers gave Abdulmutallab extra scrutiny when he landed in Detroit, there was no guarantee that the information provided by his father would have been enough for an officer to decide he should not be allowed in the country.
For an administration rocked by the breach of security, Thursday was meant to be a pivot point from an incident that has dominated attention since Christmas.
"In many ways, this will be the close of this part of the investigation," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.
For nearly the last two weeks, Obama and his team have spent an enormous amount of time responding to the near-disaster. The White House is eager to start moving public attention back to its efforts to expand health care and boost the economy, while careful to say Obama will be monitoring security improvements.
Abdulmutallab was indicted Wednesday on charges of attempted murder and other crimes in the airline incident.
Even with whatever details and improvements are revealed Thursday, questions will remain. Senate committees plan hearings later this month. And it remains unclear whether any top officials from Obama's not-quite-year-old administration will be fired over the debacle.
"I don't know what the final outcome in terms of hiring and firing will be," Gibbs said.
He said no personnel announcements were expected Thursday.
Two legislative officials familiar with intelligence matters, one in the House and one in the Senate, said Wednesday that it appeared unlikely that anyone in the Obama administration would be fired over the incident. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Obama's comments Thursday will be his sixth on the incident, encompassing two statements to reporters during his Hawaii vacation and two more from the White House, a written statement on New Year's Eve and his radio address last weekend.
The president blistered the intelligence community earlier this week, saying flatly that the government had enough information to uncover the plot and disrupt the attack. "It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had," Obama said.
Charlie Allen, the former head of collection at CIA, said the government suffers from a shortage of experienced intelligence analysts.
Analysts take pieces of information - like the disparate threads available before Christmas - look at them, correlate them, and then make a "very strong leap in order to reach a decision," Allen said. "It takes experience."
This program aired on January 7, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.