Suspect's movements raise questions about holes in anti-terror system
The Obama administration on Tuesday praised law enforcement officials who discovered and dismantled the bomb in New York City last weekend, and who arrested a suspect late Monday.world Updated: May 05, 2010 09:03 IST
The Obama administration on Tuesday praised law enforcement officials who discovered and dismantled the bomb in New York City last weekend, and who arrested a suspect late Monday. But the fact remained that Faisal Shahzad was allegedly able to train with terrorists in Pakistan, return to the United States to assemble a car bomb in Connecticut and park it in Times Square without anyone in the nation's vast counterterrorism apparatus knowing anything about it.
Senior administration officials cited two instances in which the system could have worked more effectively. On Monday night, sometime between the FBI's discovery of Shahzad's identity and whereabouts and his removal from an Emirates airline plane that was about to depart from John F. Kennedy International Airport, agents "lost him," one official said.
"It does beg the question why he wasn't apprehended before arriving at the airport or boarding the plane," one official said.
Officials also pointed to Emirates' failure to update its no-fly list in response to federal bulletins Monday afternoon, allowing Shahzad, who arrived at the airport at 7:35 pm after booking his flight from his car on the way, to board the 11 pm flight.
Another senior official acknowledged that the system is not foolproof but insisted that it has improved. "We have a system that is built with redundancy and that is agile, increasingly so," he said. "So while it's our job to worry and to act on those worries we also feel like we have a system that's been improved over time."
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who appeared at a news conference Tuesday with Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, described federal and local cooperation as "seamless."
But some Republicans noted that the attempt was not prevented, and they criticized the administration for its actions after the bomb was discovered, including reading Miranda rights to Shahzad just hours after his arrest. Administration officials said he was initially questioned without those rights, under a "public safety" exemption to the law, and was read those rights he waived them as he continued to cooperate with law enforcement.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested that there is a basic hole in the intelligence system that is difficult to fill. "Increasingly, the dilemma is the well-educated man who moves through the education system of our country somewhat promisingly," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; Shahzad is a graduate of U.S. universities.
"I've always felt that this was the future in America for what we have to watch for in terrorism," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a member of the intelligence committee. "And it's very hard to protect against, because you don't know who they are."
After the aborted bombing attempt aboard a plane on Christmas Day, President Barack Obama cited a systemic failure that allowed the suspect, a Nigerian citizen, to travel on a commercial airliner despite intelligence warnings about his possible connection to terrorism some of which came from his parents and allegedly with a bomb in his underwear. Like the Times Square bomb, that explosive malfunctioned.
Obama ordered a major review of watch-list procedures and failures that had allowed the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to retain a valid U.S. visa. Officials said Tuesday that the criteria for searching and questioning individuals had been tightened since then, but that the administration is still discussing whether to alter the criterion of "reasonable suspicion" of terrorism connections.
Even if new criteria had been in place, however, officials agreed that no questions would have been raised over Shahzad's apparently taking several trips to Pakistan, where his parents and other family members lived. Naturalized in April 2009, he lived with his family in Connecticut and until last year was an employed homeowner. He broke no laws.
It was not until the day after the car bomb was found that federal officials discovered a foreign connection, linking a telephone number used by the purchaser of the vehicle to Pakistan and, by Monday morning, to Shahzad. They gleaned details about him from an unrelated airport screening conducted when he returned from Pakistan in February.
At 12:30 pm Monday, his name was added to the terrorism suspect database at the National Counterterrorism Center and to the no-fly list.
A few minutes later, authorities sent a notice to all airlines telling them to check their passenger manifests against a "Web board" a secure site that had an updated list of passengers who should be blocked from flying one senior administration official said.
By 4:45 pm, Shahzad's passport number was added to the Web site, making it even easier to identify him. Nonetheless, Shahzad did not raise any red flags for the Emirates airlines when he reserved his ticket at about 6:30 while en route to the airport.
"If he was put on the no-fly list before he arrived at the airport, then he never should have been allowed to board the plane in the first place," said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. She added, however, "It's evident to me, in contrast to the Abdulmutallab case, there was much better coordination this time at the federal level between our intelligence agencies and our law enforcement agencies."
It was unclear exactly when the FBI physically located Shahzad, but law enforcement officials acknowledged that among the many "moving parts" involved in tracking him, he was at some point out of their sights.
"The situation was extremely fast-moving," an official said. "The FBI identified him and, within a few hours, had already located him and begun surveillance. At some point, he was able to slip surveillance, but because the bureau had added him to the appropriate watch lists, he was caught as he tried to escape."
One administration official said that it was possible that the FBI was tracking more than one person, without knowing for sure which one was Shahzad.
At 10:40 pm, 20 minutes before takeoff, when all passengers were aboard the Emirates plane, the airline sent its passenger manifest to the airlines. At that point, an official said, he "hits as a possible match." By the time Customs and Border Protection agents reached the plane, the door had already closed.
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First Published: May 05, 2010 09:01 IST