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Obama’s Misleading Christmas-Attack Explanation

The most significant portion of President Obama’s remarks today about his Northwest Airlines Flight 253 reviews is his explanation of what went wrong:

The bottom line is this: the U.S. government had sufficient information to uncover this plot and to potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots that would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list. In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we already had. The information was there. Agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it, and our professionals were trained to look for it and bring it all together.

Perhaps it’s true that in Obama’s judgment there was sufficient information to uncover the plot. But it’s not true that there was sufficient information “that would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.” As a U.S. intelligence official told me last week, there is a standard for moving someone from a person-of-interest list run by the National Counterterrorism Center to the FBI-maintained Terrorist Screening Database. That standard is “specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion.” And that FBI-maintained database still has another procedural and evidentiary step to go through before placing someone on the no-fly list.

Obama can say that common sense dictates that Abdulmutallab ought to have been on the no-fly list. But that’s reasoning backward from the conclusion. It’s appropriate after a failure occurs. But it’s not appropriate as an explanation for how that failure occurred. The standard for placing someone on the no-fly list is simply not met by the aggregated intelligence that Obama cited (and he didn’t unveil any new information). If he’s not satisfied with that standard, it falls to him to change it.

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