By Susan Crabtree - 01/20/10 04:42 PM EST
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Obama administration last year announced the creation of HVDIG, a new
inter-agency squad for interrogating the highest-value terrorism
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.
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.
FBI agent in charge at the scene,” in consultation with the Justice
Department, made the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”