Obama calls for closer eye on watch list system

Measures to better integrate information to be announced

President Obama has said the government’s terrorist watch-listing system is not broken, but the failure to add a man who allegedly tried to detonate a bomb on a flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day to the ‘no-fly’ list shows the “system needs to be strengthened.”

“Counterterrorism officials have reviewed and updated our terrorist watch list system, including adding more individuals to the no fly list,” Obama said at the White House on Jan. 5 following a meeting with his top national-security officials to discuss the failed attack.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to detonate the bomb, reportedly was in the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, the government's central repository on international terrorist identities that includes data about 500,000 people. However, Abdulmutallab, a 23-year old Nigerian, reportedly didn't make the cut to be on the government’s consolidated watch list that includes about 400,000 people that authorities know or reasonably suspect of involvement in terrorist activity. Abdulmutallab also wasn't on the no-fly list, and a smaller roster with more stringent standards comprised of approxiately 3,400 people considered threats to civil aviation or national security. Abdulmutallab's visa also wasn’t revoked.

“The bottom line is this: The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list,” Obama said.

"In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had," he added. Obama said that it’s increasingly clear that intelligence wasn’t fully analyzed, and he said that was unacceptable.

Meanwhile, late on Jan. 5, CNN cited unnamed senior State Department officials as saying that the government had lowered the threshold for data considered important enough to place suspicious people on a no-fly list or have a visa revoked. Officials said that under the new criteria Abdulmutallab would have been put on a no fly-list and his visa likely would have been revoked, according to the CNN.com article.

After the failed Christmas Day attack Obama ordered two reviews. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been conducting a review of aviation screening, technology and procedures. Obama said he had received initial findings of that study and was pleased the review is "drawing on the best science and technology," including the expertise of the Energy Department.

In addition, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan has been leading the review of the terrorist watch-listing system. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that an unclassified version of Brennan’s report on the watch-listing system would be released on Jan. 7.

Obama said in the coming days he would “announce further steps to disrupt attacks, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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