Is the Intelligence Community Hiding its Most Precious – and Important – Information from the President?

By Janice Kephart on January 31, 2010

Ever since the facts trickled out that Christmas Day attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had a valid visa to the United States despite his father's in-person intelligence provided to CIA officials at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, the issue of why his visa was not revoked has been a top priority issue for the president, the press, and those of us that do national security policy development in Washington. During the discussions of why Abdulmutallab's visa was not revoked, we heard a dozen different excuses. Here are some of the best.

First, was from the president himself. We heard more than once professorial-type anger in live press statements after Obama directed the intelligence community and his top aides to investigate the failures that led to the near-successful Christmas Day attack. He told the world of a "failure to connect the dots" with promises that this "intolerable situation," and those that caused it, would be "held accountable" for their "unacceptable" failures, including the issue of the valid visa.

Second, we heard indirectly from the intelligence community. The National Counterterrorism Center and the Central Intelligence Agency had received the Visa Viper – designed specifically to report terrorists to Washington for further analysis – but had not received any "specific" information that would have upgraded Abdulmutallab from a "possible terrorist" on a 500,000-name watchlist to the 4,000-name "terrorist" watchlist used to support the No Fly list used by airlines at check-in.

Third, the State Department specifically told us – in press conferences – that Abdulmutallab's name was checked in their visa database within a couple of days of his father's visit to U.S. officials in Nigeria on November 18, 2009, but the person who entered the name had spelled it wrong, and thus no file was retrieved in the consular database indicating that the Christmas bomber did possess a valid U.S. visa until Christmas Day.

Then last week, very quietly and out of the blue, two stories appeared that seem to have failed to take wing with the American media, but should have. First comes news of arrests in Malaysia of 10 individuals associated with Abdulmutallab early in the morning on Jan. 28, 2010. How the suspects were determined to be in Malaysia, or their identity, was specifically not revealed. A U.S.-backed venture, perhaps. This is what the news story said:

10 terror suspects linked to Detroit case
Malaysia: Arrested men part of global network
Julia Zappei / Associated Press

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Malaysia is holding 10 terror suspects with alleged ties to a Nigerian suspected in last month's attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner, a news report said today.

Malaysia's home minister announced the arrests Wednesday, saying they were mainly foreigners linked to a global terrorist network.

They include four men from Syria, two from Nigeria and one each from Yemen and Jordan, said Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, head of a rights group that aids people detained under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial.

They were among 50 people arrested while attending a religious talk by a Syrian university lecturer on Jan. 21 at a home near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, Syed Ibrahim said. The others were later released.

The government-linked New Straits Times newspaper said foreign anti-terrorism agencies told authorities that the suspects were in Malaysia and were linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian man accused of trying to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear during a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.

The newspaper did not say how it obtained the information or how they were linked. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein refused to elaborate Wednesday on why the suspects were detained, but said they posed a "serious threat" to security.

Then, soon after, as if chomping at the bit to finally set the record straight, came State Department Management Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy to tell us that State had not done anything wrong in failing to revoke Abdulmutallab's visa because they had done so at the intelligence community's insistence. No more claims that State didn't even know the attacker had a visa until Christmas Day, a statement made pages into a State Department press conference a couple of weeks ago after insistent questioning from the press. This is what State said shortly after the announcement was made that the bomber's apparent associates in Malaysia had been arrested:

Terror suspect's visa kept valid for larger probe, hearing told
Nathan Hurst / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington --The State Department didn't revoke the visa of foiled terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to protect a larger investigation, a top State Department official revealed Wednesday.

Patrick F. Kennedy, an undersecretary for management at the State Department, said Abdulmutallab's visa wasn't taken away at the request of federal counterterrorism officials concerned that doing so would have foiled an investigation into al-Qaida threats against the United States.

"Revocation action would've disclosed what they were doing," Kennedy said in testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Allowing Abdulmutallab to keep the visa increased chances federal investigators would be able to get closer to apprehending the terror network he is accused of working with, "rather than simply knocking out one soldier in that effort."

When asked about why the State Department wouldn't revoke the visa despite indications he was involved in a terror plot, Kennedy reiterated his assertion that intelligence agencies sometimes request visas not be revoked "for the purpose of rolling up an entire network, not just one person."

So my question is, would the president have really chastised the intelligence community as he did had he known that the intelligence community did know about Abdulmutallab, and was following him? Would he have spent his time appointing an investigation by John Brennan? Would he have promised that individuals would be held accountable? Yes, the intelligence community did take the investigation too far in allowing – or not knowing – that Abdulmutallab had boarded the plane, but the level of scolding that the president gave the intelligence community indicates that he may not have been told that the intelligence community knew of Abdulmutallab and was tracking him. The president had made it sound as if the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the NCTC never connected the dots at all.

While this latest statement by the State Department smells a bit of a cover-the-buttocks statement to assure that: (1) they do know what they are doing in regard to visa issuance and revocation; and (2) that they truly cannot go against the bidding of the intelligence community when they want a visa to remain in place; and (3) the intelligence community and State have a solid working relationship, the fact that the announcement came within hours of the arrests of Christmas bomber associates perhaps means this is the truth.

So if this is the truth, why didn't the president know it within hours after the attack on Christmas Day? All indications are he did not. What that means about the disconnect between the intelligence community and this president – perhaps a distrust well-deserved after the series of unprecedented public admonitions by the president of the intelligence community in the past year – it does not indicate that when critical decisions need to be made, our commander-in-chief necessarily has all the information before him to make the best decision under the circumstances.

How can we have solid national security when our governmental agencies don't talk to each other? We talked about this extensively in the 9/11 Commission Final Report, and made recommendations to solve the problem, many of which are in place and working. But we never imagined that the entity that was receiving shared information would be the president of the United States.

We deserve answers, and we deserve them now.