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Border Enforcement Officials Learned of Terrorist While He Was in The Air

The Chicago Tribune via YellowBrix

January 07, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. border security officials learned of the alleged extremist links of the suspect in the Christmas Day jetliner bombing attempt as he was airborne from Amsterdam to Detroit and had decided to question him when he landed, officials disclosed Wednesday.

The new information shows that border enforcement officials discovered the suspected extremist ties involving the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a database despite intelligence failures that have been criticized by President Obama.

“The people in Detroit were prepared to look at him in secondary inspection,” a senior law enforcement official said. “The decision had been made. The [database] had picked up the State Department concern about this guy — that this guy may have been involved with extremist elements in Yemen.”

If the intelligence had been detected sooner, it could have resulted in the interrogation and search of Abdulmutallab at the airport in Amsterdam, according to senior law enforcement officials, all of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

“They could have made the decision on whether to stop him from getting on the plane,” the senior law enforcement official said.

But an administration official said late Wednesday that the information would not have resulted in further scrutiny before the suspect departed. Abdulmutallab was in a database containing half a million names of people with suspected extremist links but who are not considered threats. Therefore, border security officials would have sought only to question him upon arrival in the U.S., the administration official said.

Nonetheless, the disclosure shows the complexity of the intelligence and passenger screening systems that are the subject of comprehensive reviews that the administration will release today.

The threshold for requiring a foreign visitor to undergo special scrutiny upon arrival in the U.S. is considerably lower than criteria for stopping a passenger’s departure overseas, according to current and former law enforcement officials. That is why border security agencies rely heavily on terrorism watch lists of suspects seen as urgent threats, officials said.

“The public isn’t aware how many people are allowed to travel through the U.S., who are linked, who intersect with bad guys or alleged bad guys,” a national security official said. “It makes sense from an intelligence perspective. If they are not considered dangerous, it provides intelligence on where they go, who they meet with.”

Moreover, the window for identifying a passenger overseas as a potential threat is limited, a senior homeland security official said.

U.S. border enforcement officials have access to passenger data based on lists of those who have made flight reservations. But the in-depth vetting only begins once a comprehensive list, known as a flight manifest, has been generated, just a few hours before takeoff, the homeland security official said.


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