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Senate Intel Committee Blasts National Counterterrorism Center on Abdulmutallab

A long-awaited report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the failed bombing attempt aboard Northwest Flight 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab essentially finds that the nation’s premier center for terrorism intelligence didn’t do its job ahead of the Christmastime danger.

“Prior to 12/25,” reads the report, spearheaded by committee leaders Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and declassified for release this afternoon, the National Counterterrorism Center, a 600-employee center inspired by the 9/11 Commission to tie together all streams of terrorism intelligence to prevent another surprise attack, “was not adequately organized and did not have the resources appropriately allocated to fulfill its missions.” That echoes a critique that NCTC veterans and whistleblowers made to The Washington Independent in January.

The committee’s report casts blame around the intelligence community for its inability to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian citizen educated in the U.K. and trained by al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate for the attack, from boarding Flight 253. But it finds the key bottlenecks occurred at NCTC. As we’ve reported for months, analysts within an NCTC-led process did not find that the threat information on Abdulmutallab did not meet the standard of specificity for moving him onto the FBI’s terrorist watchlist or the no-fly list. (The standard is “Specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion.”)

But NCTC’s analysts, despite possessing a statutory mandate to “serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected” terrorists, did not even “conduct additional research” to meet the “specific derogatory information” standard necessary to keep Abdulmutallab out of the U.S. — even after possessing enough information to place him on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database. And while the committee’s report doesn’t get specific in its unclassified summary, it hints repeatedly that there existed throughout the intelligence community enough piecemeal intelligence to meet the standard. “Analysts responsible for making the watchlisting determination did not believe they had the ability to give additional weight to significant pieces of information from the field, such as the report that resulted from the meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father,” the report states.

Its recommendations call into question the basic analytic and organizational competence of NCTC — something that its own analysts have done in interviews with TWI last January. The committee finds that for all of NCTC’s supposed analytic focus on al-Qaeda and the Middle East — though fewer than ten analysts work full-time on the Middle East and fewer than half of its 300 analysts work full-time on al-Qaeda — NCTC missed signals that al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate sought to attack the U.S. domestically. NCTC’s director “should ensure that all NCTC analysts understand their responsibility to connect related all-source information and disseminate all possible threat reporting, particularly reports that might help identify homeland threats,” the committee’s report states. And the director — for the time being, Michael Leiter — should “ensure that NCTC is organized and resourced to fulfill its responsibility to track, analyze, and report on all terrorist threats to the United States emanating from terrorist groups overseas.” You could be forgiven, after reading that, for wondering what NCTC has been doing for the first five years of its existence.

I’m awaiting comment from spokesmen for Leiter and for Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, whom the committee recommends should conduct his own review of the systemic failures here, “mindful of the intent of Congress to give NCTC the primary role and responsibility” for assembling all-source terrorism intelligence.

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