Lawmakers Question Utility of Watch Lists

Lawmakers vowed congressional investigations over the weekend into how a 23-year-old Nigerian man was able to get as far as he did with a liquid explosive, which he used in an alleged attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight landing in Detroit Christmas Day.

The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on a watch list of suspects with terrorist lists but he had not made a more exclusive "no-fly" watch list, prompting members of Congress to ask why that was the case.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, vowed to hold a hearing on the attempted terrorist attack next month.

"The reported act of terrorism–whether directly related to al Qaeda or not–and the response to it will be the focus of an oversight hearing next month. The Committee will get to the bottom of what did and did not happen with Mr. Abdulmutallab and what security precautions need to take place in the future," Thompson said in a Dec. 26 statement.

Other members of Congress discussed Abdulmutallab’s apparent attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was carrying 289 people, with PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a plastic explosive also used in the attempted bombing by Richard Reid, the shoe bomber.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) blasted federal agencies for not sharing the information that could have prevented Abdulmutallab for boarding the plane. He ridiculed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for claiming "the system worked" because Abdulmutallab was subdued by passengers and crew on the flight when his explosive failed to detonate.

"The fact is the system did not work. And we have to find a bipartisan way to fix it. He made it on the plane with explosives and he detonated the explosives," King said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.

King endorsed the use of backscatter x-ray, which has not been widely adopted partly due to privacy concerns. The full-body scan devices provide a nude although discolored image for screeners in a separate location to spot concealed items.

"[T]he Congress is also going to hold its investigation. The Homeland Security Committee to make sure that all is being done to ensure that, for instance, the person who was ona watch list, for instance, in this case Abdulmutallab, is coming out of Nigeria, which is a suspect country anyway as far as al Qaeda," King remarked.

Abdulmutallab at least should have received secondary screening in Nigeria, where his flight originated, given the amount of concerns raised about his activities in the past, King said.

Congress should consider how to move people with suspected links to terrorism from a general watch list that holds more than 500,000 names to one that is more exclusive, thereby catching people like Abdulmutallab, King said.

"Now that could have been a failure of the system. So let’s honestly address that and admit the system did not work and find ways that we can move people off that 500,000 list on to at least a secondary screening list," King said.

No-Fly List

Federal official said over the weekend that not enough information was available on Abdulmutallab to move him to a more exclusive no-fly list, which contains about 18,000 names.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), appearing on "Fox News Sunday," wondered if enough were done to identify Abdulmutallab as someone who should be on the no-fly list.

"To me, most significantly, what happened after this man’s father called our embassy in Nigeria? What happened to that information? Was there follow up in any way to try to determine where this suspect was?" Lieberman said, referencing a report that Abdulmutallab’s father had contacted the US Embassy in Nigeria to report concerns over his son’s activities.

"Secondly, it appears that he was recently put on a broad terrorism screening list, a database. Why wasn’t that database activated? Why isn’t it activated every time somebody gets on a plane abroad to come to the United States?" continued Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

With available technology, screeners should easily have access to a list of 500,000 names to sort for secondary screening or closer scrutiny, Lieberman argued.

"That doesn’t mean they’re convicted of any wrongdoing, but it would be basis enough to take this guy out of the line in Amsterdam and do a full body check, and that would have determined that he was carrying explosives," he noted.

Also appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-458) was devised to permit intelligence agencies to share information to address just this sort of situation.

"Was this a failure of these agencies to communicate, or were the markers that we put on this individual–were they not significant enough to bring this individual to a higher level of awareness that said, ‘OK, he needs to be put on a no-fly list?’" Hoekstra questioned.

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