Terrorist screening measures worked fine in Friday’s thwarted attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, despite criticism from lawmakers that the security system failed on the flight.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, was allowed to fly from Amsterdam despite warnings from his father about his extremist leanings and his inclusion on a terrorist watch list. He is accused of having explosives sewn into his clothes and trying to detonate them on the flight, which likely would have killed almost 300 passengers and crew members. He reportedly has told authorities he was part of an al Qaeda plot.
“The whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly,” Ms. Napolitano said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
But Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” attributed the flight’s survival to luck and/or terrorist incompetence.
“Let’s be honest. This guy, Abdulmutallab, got through the screening, and this would have been - could have been an enormous disaster if not for our good fortune, a miracle on Christmas Day that this device did not explode,” said Mr. Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees Ms. Napolitano’s department.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, agreed, saying on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “it’s not reassuring when the secretary of homeland security says the system worked.”
“It failed in every respect,” he said.
Much like on United Flight 93 during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was the Northwest flight crew and the passengers on Flight 253 who purportedly thwarted Mr. Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up the plane.
“That’s part of what I keep saying, is security is everybody’s responsibility,” Ms. Napolitano said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The passengers and the flight crew deserve our praise, and the system went into full alert mode leaning forward, literally, within minutes, an hour of the incident occurring in the air.”
Ms. Napolitano said there was no evidence that the suspect was part of a broader terrorist plot, although several U.S. news organizations reported Sunday that Mr. Abdulmutallab had told investigators that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen had given him the device and told him how to detonate it.
“Right now, we have no indication that it is part of anything larger,” she said on CNN.
Also on Sunday’s talk shows, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced a two-pronged air-safety investigation, saying the federal government will focus on how it places suspicious travelers on watch lists and detects explosives on passengers.
“There’s a series of databases that list people of concern to several agencies across the government. We want to make sure information-sharing is going on,” Mr. Gibbs said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that a second review would examine how “an individual with the chemical explosive he had on him could get onto an airliner in Amsterdam and fly into this country.”
Mr. Abdulmutallab was included on a terrorist watch list of about 550,000 but was not on the smaller “no-fly list,” which bars about 18,000 terrorism suspects from flying.
Security breaches involving Islamists have risen. The Army did not act against Maj. Nidal Hasan before the deadly shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, despite the suspect’s contacts with a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen.