President calls for urgent improvements to anti-terrorism efforts

White House releases report on what went wrong with intell about Christmas Day plot

President Barack Obama today directed his national security team to take actions, many involving technology and information technology, to bolster government’s watch-listing and transportation security systems. Obama's order came in response to a failed terrorist attack on a flight en route to Detroit on Christmas Day.

Obama outlined corrective steps and the findings of his administration's reviews of the attempted attack to reporters during a speech. The White House released a memo that directed heads of departments to take specific actions:

  • The State Department to review visa issuance and revocation criteria and processes to determine how technology enhancements could strengthen the process.
  • The Homeland Security Department to aggressively pursue screening technology, protocols, procedures, especially in regard to aviation and transportation technology, consistent with privacy rights and civil liberties.
  • The Director of National Intelligence to clarify and reaffirm roles for the intelligence community’s counterterrorism analytic components.
  • The Director of National Intelligence to accelerate IT enhancements, such as database integration, knowledge discovery and cross-database searches.
  • The CIA to strengthen procedures related to watch-listing information.
  • The Terrorist Screening Center that the FBI administers to conduct a thorough review of the government’s consolidated terrorist watch list and determine the visa status of all known and suspected terrorists, starting with the No Fly List.
  • The TSC to develop recommendations on whether adjustments are needed to the watch-listing system.
  • The National Counterterrorism Center to establish a dedicated capability to enhance record information on possible terrorists in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment for use on watch lists.
  • The National Security Agency to develop and put in place a training course for analysts to improve awareness of watch-listing processes.

“Taken the together these reforms will improve the intelligence community’s ability to collect, share, integrate, analyze and act on intelligence swiftly and effectively,” Obama said.

The government’s watch-listing system and aviation security measures have been under fire since the failed attack on a plane en route to Detroit.

Criticism of the watch-listing system has been stoked by reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to detonate a bomb on board, wasn’t placed on the No Fly List and his U.S. visa hadn’t been revoked, despite being in the government’s central repository of data on international terrorist identities. Screening technology also failed to detect the explosives that Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate as the plane approached Detroit.

“The U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack,” Obama said. “Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.”

The White House also released an unclassified summary version of its review of the failed attack.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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