Key Democrat: Briefing on attempted bombing left 'more questions'

Key Democrats on Capitol Hill are dissatisfied with an initial staff briefing they received from intelligence officials about the details surrounding the Christmas Day terrorist attack.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) on Wednesday sent a letter to President Barack Obama, expressing concern about the limited information provided during Wednesday's briefing.

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“Congressional staff received an inter-agency briefing on the Christmas Day event that left me with more questions than answers,” he wrote. “I understand that there were failures across the government and the international community that quite frankly, eight years after the attacks on 9/11, should not have happened.”

Leadership staff, as well as aides from the House and Senate Homeland Security, Intelligence, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary and Commerce panels, attended the first briefing.

Afterward, several staffers complained that the briefing included nothing more than what had already appeared in the news or in Obama’s press briefings.

“There was no new information,” one staffer remarked.

Others simply said they looked forward to receiving additional information in the days and weeks ahead.

“Congress looks forward to hearing the results of the review and working with the administration on recommendations to improve the watchlisting process, information/intelligence sharing, international airport screening, and other processes critical to ensuring safety and security,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

Officials repeated Obama’s most recent assertion that the attack should have been prevented, but information that existed about the alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was vague and not enough to place him on the no-fly list or require additional screening, aides said.

A scheduled Capitol Hill briefing with intelligence officials Wednesday will provide another opportunity for the administration to share information with Congress. Staffers say they will be looking for more answers after they receive and digest an intelligence agency report of the investigation into last week’s near takedown of a passenger jet over Detroit, according to several Democratic aides.

Officials from the State Department, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will be on hand Wednesday to brief only staff on the Intelligence, Homeland Security and Armed Services committees who hold security clearances, said one senior Democratic source.

The harsh congressional questioning will likely continue for weeks. The House and Senate Homeland Security panels, as well as the Senate Commerce Committee, have announced plans to hold hearings in January.

“You shouldn’t leave airline security to the passengers and flight attendants,” House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told The Hill. “That’s not the system we spent so much time and energy setting up.”

In his letter, Skelton commended the work of the “men and women” in the intelligence communities and credited them with preventing previous terrorist attacks. He also acknowledged the difficulty of breaking up terrorist plots.

“One might call it looking for a specific needle within a stack of needles,” he wrote.

Still, he vowed to continue his panel’s “oversight” and he noted that he is particularly interested in taking “a hard look at the watchlist and screening procedures developed under the last administration.”

“Destroying these extremists groups’ ability to recruit, train, communicate, finance, and plan terrorist activities is essential to American security,” he continued. “The Armed Services Committee will continue its oversight in this area and we look forward to an update on global counter-terror efforts early in the New Year.”

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are also calling on Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) to hold a hearing examining the intelligence failure that allowed the attempted bombing. That committee played a central role in creating the Department of Homeland Security and overhauling the intelligence community to encourage better information-sharing in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“When we created DHS, there was unanimous agreement here on the Hill and in the executive that we must go from an atmosphere of need to know to need to share,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the panel. “It now appears that our various counterterrorist agencies are reverting to their pre-9/11 ways and their refusal to share information has put our nation at risk.”