Intelligence Official: Info From State Department on Abdulmutallab Was ‘Very Thin’

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009 at 2:07 pm

After State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly told reporters yesterday that an interagency process led by the National Counterterrorism Center was responsible for revoking Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s visa into the U.S. — and not the State Department, which issued the visa — perhaps some pushback was inevitable. Indeed, a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing case said that the State Department provided that process with “very thin information” and “definitely not enough” to yank Abdulmutallab’s visa and put him on the no-fly list.

Recall that in November, Abdulmutallab’s father told officials at the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria that Abdulmutallab might pose a threat. Embassy officials put Abdulmutallab on a master database of non-specific threat information called TIDE, run by the National Counterterrorist Center. And that’s where the first bureaucratic chokepoint in Abdulmutallab’s saga is found.  The NCTC uses a set of criteria agreed upon by the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community to determine who goes to a different list, known as the Terrorist Screening Database, run by the FBI. And if someone is on that database, that would prompt visa revocation and placement on the no-fly list.

So what’s the standard for moving from TIDE to the Terrorist Screening Database? “Specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion” that someone poses a terrorist threat. And what State got from Abdulmutallab’s father — and disseminated through the TIDE process — didn’t fit the bill, the U.S. intelligence official said. “Realistically, a lot of guys call every day and say their relative or former friend is dangerous,” the official explained. To use that level of information to revoke someone’s visa or stop someone from flying would be “unmanageable. We’d probably shut down air traffic.”

It remains to be seen if that’s going to be a compelling explanation to lawmakers furious that Abdulmutallab got on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. But unless Congress weakens the standards for moving from TIDE to the Terrorist Screening Database, that’s the way it is. “If Congress wants us to change the criteria,” the official said, “we will move from there.” But buyer beware.

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter


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