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While U.S. intelligence failed on Flight 253 attack, problem not a 9-11 repeat

WASHINGTON — The failure of the U.S. intelligence system to prevent the attack on Northwest Flight 253 is not a repeat of the breakdowns that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks.

After 2001, the 9/11 Commission found that a fatal flaw was the lack of information-sharing by the various agencies that collected intelligence. On Christmas Day 2009, despite many clues and tips, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian, was allowed to board the plane in Amsterdam because the system was, in effect, overwhelmed with data.

A detailed review of the missteps leading up to the attack, released Thursday, concluded that there was a failure of “intelligence analysis” before Dec. 25, where the counterintelligence community did not “identify, correlate and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government” about Abdulmutallab and an emerging plot against the U.S. organized by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

John Brennan, President Obama’s top Homeland Security adviser, said at a briefing that before 9/11, the problem was a reluctance within the intelligence community to share information. “This is not what happened here.”

The review found that there was plenty of information, but no one understood “the intelligence we had. We didn’t follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence.”

That happened, Brennan said, because no one intelligence entity was charged with the followup investigation, so “the intelligence fell through the cracks.” So Abdulmutallab’s father warning U.S. officials in Nigeria about his son’s extremist views was pumped into the intelligence system — but never linked to information about al-Qaida’s involvement with “a Nigerian,” a plot to strike the U.S. and the fact that he held a valid U.S. visa. (His name was checked in a State Department visa database, but because it was misspelled, no red flag warned that he held a valid visa.)

Lee Hamilton, the former co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission — whose report was critical of the lack of information-sharing — said the breakdown this time was an analysis problem, not a failure to share data.

“I do not see this as a structural problem,” Hamilton said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I see it as a situation where a number of government employees … simply missed things they should have caught.”