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Now This Looks Like an Intelligence Failure

Previous reporting has all indicated to me that the big systemic failure in the Northwest Airlines Flight 253 near-attack concerned the standards for moving someone onto specific terrorism lists like the no-fly list. President Obama has said the watchlisting standards are going to change, but he also said something different that seemed to me to be a political answer, not a policy one: that the intelligence agencies had all the information they needed to put the would-be attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab onto the no-fly list. And that didn’t seem to be correct: the information on Abdulmutallab was fragmentary at best; and moving him onto the no-fly would have also involved excluding a lot of other people who aren’t security threats. But now something’s making me reconsider that judgment.

Check out this New York Times story from yesterday. It contains a new piece of information about what the intelligence agencies had collected about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which sponsored Abdulmutallab’s efforts.

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.

OK now. On Nov. 19, Abdulmutallab’s father told officials at the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria he was afraid his son was turning toward extremism and might be in Yemen. Between that; the “Umar Farouk” intercept; and the assorted other pieces of collection that AQAP was trying to hit the U.S. outside of Yemen or Saudi, *that *seems to hit the “specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion” standard for moving a person-of-interest from the non-specific TIDE database at the National Counterterrorism Center to the Terrorist Screening Database at the FBI, which is the precursor move to putting him on the no-fly list. Mark Hosenball has reported that the Department of Homeland Security only checked TIDE to find Abdulmutallab’s name when Northwest 253 was in the air. Given this new information on “Umar Farouk,” perhaps they shouldn’t have needed to.

Michael Leiter, director of the NCTC, will be explaining all this to Congress in a battery of hearings this week. Let’s see what his explanation is.

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