Intelligence chief says it was mistake to reduce no-fly list

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair on Wednesday said he should not have given in to pressure to reduce the passenger no-fly list before the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

“The pressure on the no-fly list was to make them smaller … shame on us for giving in to that pressure,” Blair told the Senate Homeland Security Committee during a Wednesday hearing.

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“What is prudent is to put names on just in case and take them off when it’s justified,” he said. “The pressure [before the attempted bombing] was in the other direction. I should not have given in to that pressure.”

Intelligence and homeland security agencies have faced criticism for failing to place Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged in the bombing attempt, on the no-fly list even though officials knew for months that the Nigerian student had terrorist ties and his father had warned U.S. authorities about his extremist behavior.

Abdulmutallab was added in November to the 550,000 suspects on a watch list kept by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, yet there wasn’t enough negative information about him, by intelligence standards at the time, to put him on the no-fly list.

Blair said intelligence agencies have greatly expanded the no-fly list since the failed attempt.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) thanked Blair for acknowledging the error and making efforts to correct it.

“I can’t thank you enough for what you just said,” said Lieberman. “We were using a standard that was legalistic … but we are at war.”

Blair said security officials in recent years felt pressure to pull back from tighter standards for traveling into the country.

“I think the pressure was going the other way … you have too many people on the no-fly list; there were questions about, ‘Why are you searching grandmothers?’ ” Blair said.

He called on Congress to provide pressure to keep the intelligence community vigilant. “We all learned from the tragedy of 9/11 … but we need to learn how to keep the pressure on when the crisis doesn’t happen, too,” he said.

Before the Christmas Day bombing attempt, members of Congress spent years complaining that too many people were being placed on the no-fly list. In 2004, Sen. Edward Kenney (D-Mass.) was stopped and questioned at airports on the East Coast five times in one month because his name appeared on the government’s secret list of suspicious travelers.

Administration officials acknowledged it was embarrassing to have continued to stop Kennedy but said it occurred because the name “T. Kennedy” had been used as an alias by someone on the list of terrorist suspects.

Blair, along with Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, also said they were not consulted on whether Abdulmutallab should be treated as a civilian criminal and read his Miranda rights or questioned by the recently created High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HVDIG).

The Obama administration last year announced the creation of HVDIG, a new inter-agency squad for interrogating the highest-value terrorism detainees.

The group is housed at the FBI and reports to the National Security Council, not the attorney general and director of national security. The group, Obama said at the time, would make a case-by-case decision on whether to Mirandize detainees.

Blair suggested that Abdulmutallab should have been treated as a high-value terror suspect when the plane landed, which would have triggered questioning by special interrogators rather than civilian law officers.

“The FBI agent in charge at the scene,” in consultation with the Justice Department, made the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, Blair said.

There is a process for determining whether a person should be treated as an enemy combatant, Blair said, but it wasn’t used in this case.

Blair ducked a question from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about whether Abdulmutallab should be tried in civilian court or a military commission.

“I’m not ready to offer an opinion on that in open session,” Blair replied.

McCain leveled the harshest criticism of the hearing, calling the intelligence failure that allowed the near-takedown of the passenger jet a “terrible, terrible mistake” and demanding to know why no one has been fired, transferred or otherwise disciplined in the attempted bombing’s wake.

Recalling President Barack Obama’s promise to hold intelligence agencies accountable, McCain grilled Blair, even suggesting that he should step down.

In the Navy, McCain told Blair, who attained the rank of admiral, if something happens to the ship, the captain is relieved or suspended from duty.

“The captain is sometimes relieved and sometimes not relieved,” Blair responded, adding that he doesn’t “feel good” about the intelligence lapses and is working to fix them.

Both McCain and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed deep concern about the decision to charge Abdulmutallab as a civilian rather than an enemy combatant, which may have resulted in interrogators obtaining more information from him.

“I think it’s pretty clear that this individual did not act alone,” McCain said.

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Lieberman asked intelligence officials whether they have the ability to cross-check names throughout various databases in order to strengthen national security.

As he understands it, Lieberman said, while a lot of intelligence is amassed, there’s no mechanism to cross-analyze it via a search engine like Google.

Right now, Leiter said, the intelligence community lacks that kind of search capacity and has been working with private-sector companies to develop it and implement a similar product in a “matter of weeks.”