Better integrated intell could save lives

Officials discuss ways to correct intell failures that preceded failed Christmas Day attack

Senior officials from national security agencies told senators today that they plan to improve the searchability of terrorist watch lists, which have come under fire since a failed attempt to detonate a bomb on a flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.

Officials echoed an initial White House review that states that the inability to foil Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who has been charged in connection with the attempted bombing, was a failure of integration and analysis rather than a problem of information hoarding. President Barack Obama recently ordered Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, to accelerate information technology enhancements that would improve database integration and facilitate cross-database searches.

“The search tools that we now have depend on certain characteristics…but they also have blind spots that don’t allow the sort of Google-like ideas we have from our own computers,” Blair told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee today. “Several of those shortcomings came up in this case, which we can fix.”

Blair also said more testing of systems needs to occur before they are placed in production to assess what-if scenarios before an incident occurs and monitor information flow. He indicated more emphasis would now be placed on testing systems.

Blair and Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), testified that Abdulmutallab’s name would have been placed on the consolidated watch list if national security agencies had linked all of the information related to the plot that the government had before the attack.

Abdulmutallab was listed in NCTC's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, the government's central repository for international terrorist identities that includes data on about 500,000 people.

However, Abdulmutallab didn't make the cut to be on the government’s consolidated watch list that includes data on about 400,000 people whom authorities know or reasonably suspect are involved in terrorist activity. Abdulmutallab also wasn't on the no-fly list, a smaller subset of the consolidated list with more stringent standards comprised of people considered threats to civil aviation or national security.

In addition, Abdulmutallab’s visa wasn’t revoked because he wasn’t placed on a watch list, and a misspelling of Abdulmutallab’s name caused the State Department to believe he didn’t have a valid visa, the White House review of the incident found.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's chairman, asked Leiter whether the NCTC had a search engine that could produce an alarm for terms such as "Umar Farouk," "Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab," "Nigeria" or "Dec. 25."

“Am I right? Do we not have that capacity within the NCTC?” Lieberman asked.

“Senator, we do not have that exact capacity,” Leiter responded, adding that experts have found such a capability to be difficult to put in place. “I think we have some potential technological solutions on the very, very near-term horizon that we’re attempting to implement within weeks,” Leiter added.

Leiter said he was surprised to learn the number of searches conducted by other agencies that don't tap critical datasets. In addition, Leiter said that before the failed attack, work was already under way to improve search capabilities. But he added that “we have obviously not gotten to the point that we need to get to, and we’re trying to accelerate that now.”

Meanwhile, during a separate hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller said computer changes are frequently necessary because of the growth of technology and different databases, in addition to statutory restrictions on sharing information.

Mueller said that as technology evolves, intelligence searches can access more information in more databases. But he said “the federal procurement schedule in order to get this done keeps us a step behind where we want to be.”

“But I think in the wake of what happened on Christmas Day, we’re all looking at particular fixes — short-term and long-term fixes — individually within our agencies but also across the [intelligence] community,” Mueller added.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


  • Defense
    Soldiers from the Old Guard test the second iteration of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) capability set during an exercise at Fort Belvoir, VA in Fall 2019. Photo by Courtney Bacon

    IVAS and the future of defense acquisition

    The Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System has been in the works for years, but the potentially multibillion deal could mark a paradigm shift in how the Defense Department buys and leverages technology.

  • Cybersecurity
    Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lora Ratliff)

    Mayorkas announces cyber 'sprints' on ransomware, ICS, workforce

    The Homeland Security secretary announced a series of focused efforts to address issues around ransomware, critical infrastructure and the agency's workforce that will all be launched in the coming weeks.

Stay Connected