Officials: Misspelling in database allowed Christmas bomber to go undetectedIntelligence databases lack the ability to perform Google-like searches via work computers
By Chuck Bennett
The New York Post
WASHINGTON — The nation's most sophisticated intelligence databases lack the "Google-like" ability to decipher misspelled words, counterterrorism officials sheepishly admitted yesterday on Capitol Hill.
"We do not have that exact capacity," said National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter when asked to explain how a misspelling of al Qaeda-trained underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's name in government files allowed the plot to go undetected.
Abdulmutallab's father told US Embassy officials in Abuja, Nigeria, that he suspected his son was mixed up with Yemeni terrorists, but a State Department employee misspelled his name in a database entry.
The databases "have blind spots that don't allow the sort of Google-like [searches] we have from our own computers," said Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence.
With the name misspelled, analysts were unable to correlate the father's tip with an electronic intercept of a Yemeni militant message that mentioned Abdulmutallab's first name.
Both Leiter — who came under fire for taking a weeklong ski trip the day after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard Northwest Flight 253 — and Blair told the Senate Homeland Security Committee they expect a technical solution to be in place within weeks.
In another stunner before the committee, it was revealed that the Obama administration failed to consult with the nation's top three terror officials — Leiter, Blair and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — before a decision was made to put Abdulmutallab in the hands of a civilian court.
Blair also said that a new terror task force, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, was not called in to question Abdulmutallab before he was turned over to civilian authorities.
Blair told the committee, "That unit was created exactly for this purpose. We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have."
And though Blair's office later backed off his statements and put out a notice praising the FBI's interrogation of Abdulmutallab, the revelation shocked senators on the committee.
"That is very troubling," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
"It appears to me that we lost an opportunity to secure some valuable intelligence information, and that the process that Director Blair described should have been implemented in this case. And I think it's very troubling that it was not, and that three key intelligence officials were not asked their opinion."
The revelations were more examples of the lack of coordination and technological innovation by counterterrorism officials nearly 8 1/2 years after 9/11.
Blair also said that adding suspected terrorists to the "no-fly list" was overly burdensome because of legal hurdles and too many "Why are you searching grandmothers?" complaints.
"I should not have given in to that pressure," Blair said. "Shame on us for giving in to that pressure."
Abdulmutallab was placed on an unwieldy watch list of 400,000 names that had no impact on his travel to the United States.
Meanwhile, during a separate hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller defended his agency's handling of Abdulmutallab.
But Senate Republicans ripped into Mueller, saying Abdulmutallab, 23, should have been turned over to military authorities.
"We don't know what that individual knows, learned while he was working with al Qaeda, and we may never know, because he now has got a lawyer who's telling him to be quiet," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the committee.
Acting without instruction from higher-ups, the FBI agents who met Flight 253 on the ground in Detroit charged Abdulmutallab criminally, rather than give him to the military.
"It sounds to me like the guys on the ground just made a decision on the fly," Sessions said.