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.
A key document detailing TSA airport security screening procedures was accidentally posted online. Ms. Napolitano appeared to allude to this incident Sunday when she said screeners were rotating procedures at airports so as not to be predictable.
Republican leaders said the Northwest Airlines incident on Christmas seems to be the most egregious example of a security failure.
"There is much to investigate here. It's amazing to me that an individual like this, who was sending out so many signals, could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on ABC's "This Week."
Other White House aides defended the response and broader efforts by the Obama administration to refocus the war on terror, including drawing down fighting forces in Iraq and refocusing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I think pretty quickly the White House determined, and we told many in the media and you all reported, that we believe this was a potential terrorist attack that, that could have occurred. The president certainly has taken steps in his time in office to reorient our priorities as it comes to fighting that war on terror," Mr. Gibbs said.
Meanwhile Sunday, another incident involving a Nigerian occurred on a Northwest Amsterdam-Detroit flight. It was apparently just a coincidence, but the jitters from Friday's incident prompted authorities to take the plane to a remote part of Detroit Metropolitan Airport to unload and screen the passengers.
A second Nigerian man, whom authorities did not immediately identify, was detained after locking himself in the plane's bathroom and acting belligerently. Officials said that his claim of sickness turned out to be genuine.
The Associated Press reported, however, citing a government report it had obtained, that no air marshals were aboard Sunday's Amsterdam-Detroit flight despite government promises of tighter security and mobilization of air marshals.
U.S. authorities said they think Mr. Abdulmutallab tried to ignite PETN, a nitroglycerin-related powder, in his underwear, and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive in a syringe strapped to his leg.
The attempt set off popping, smoke and some fire but no major explosion. The crude detonator reportedly failed to get a proper blast out of the mixture.
Law enforcement officials told AP on the condition of anonymity that bomb-sniffing dogs, a human frisking or airport "puffer" machines, which blow air onto a passenger to collect and analyze residues, probably would have detected PETN powder. However, most airplane passengers go only through magnetometers, which detect metal rather than explosives.
Mr. Abdulmutallab was released to federal marshals Sunday and is now detained in Michigan on federal charges of attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a destructive device in an airplane. He had been in a Michigan hospital receiving treatment for burns.