The White House official leading the interagency review into the U.S. terrorist watch list system that contributed to a near-catastrophe on Christmas Day used to head a company that provides critical analysis to those who create the watch list.
John Brennan, President Obama’s special assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, is expected to report to the president Thursday on how the national system for detecting and preventing terrorist attacks failed to prevent a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a Northwest Airlines plane in Amsterdam with a military-grade explosive sewed into the crotch of his underwear. Passengers subdued the would-be terrorist after he failed to set off his bomb.
Mr. Brennan served between November 2005 and January 2009 as the chief executive officer of what was then known as the Analysis Corp., a contractor that provides intelligence analysis used in developing the watch-list system.
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A spokeswoman for the company, which has since been acquired by Global Defense Technology & Systems Inc., confirmed Wednesday that the contractor helps develop the watch lists for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), an interagency hub that Mr. Brennan, a CIA veteran, helped create.
“Since 2004, the Analysis Corporation [GLOBAL TAC] has been a member of the large team that supports the U.S. government’s terrorist watch-listing efforts,” said Lauren Peduzzi, a communications manager for GLOBAL. “As part of the team, GLOBAL TAC personnel review intelligence data and provide analysis to aid U.S. government decision-makers in their ongoing efforts to align the national security policy with today’s counterterrorism challenges.” She said she could not go into further detail because the work is highly classified.
White House attorneys reviewed whether Mr. Brennan would be violating ethics rules by conducting the review of watch lists in light of his previous position and determined that the benefit to the public interest of having Mr. Brennan conduct the review far outweighed any potential conflict of interest.
Denis McDonough, the chief of staff for the National Security Council, said, “By virtue of his experience, John brings a unique mixture of know-how and understanding to this assignment. The applicable ethics rules recognize that when the public interest outweighs other issues, an official should be authorized to proceed with an assignment, particularly in the national security arena. Our counsel have determined that to be the case here and have authorized John to proceed - with the understanding that others will review specific issues relating to TAC should any arise.”
Ms. Peduzzi said of Mr. Brennan that “all professional and financial ties between the company and Mr. Brennan ceased when he left to serve the Obama administration as homeland security adviser and deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism.”
Ms. Peduzzi also said that her company intended to comply with any recommendations resulting from Mr. Obama’s review of the Dec. 25 incident and the U.S. watch-listing policies. “Once the review is completed, the appropriate U.S. government representatives will address the issues and determine any necessary actions. GLOBAL TAC will comply with any actions outlined by our customer,” she said.
The U.S. intelligence community had some warnings that al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was preparing a Nigerian for such an attack during the holidays. Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had told the CIA in November that he was worried about his son’s involvement in al Qaeda. The would-be bomber was denied a visa by Britain. He purchased his ticket from Nigeria to Amsterdam with cash and had no checked luggage.
Sespite these red flags, the databases and watch lists created to keep potential terrorists out of the skies and American cities failed to stop Mr. Abdulmutallab.
The potential role of contractors could be a hot topic for members of Congress when they return from the winter recess. The House Select Committee on Intelligence already has scheduled a formal briefing from the leadership of the intelligence community for Jan. 13. One U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the press said that the role of contractors in the watch-list process should be examined by Congress.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence “relies so much on contractors in the community. Someone should be looking at this anyway,” the official said.
An investigation could implicate a number of agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Transportation Security Administration and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed to coordinate intelligence sharing.
Frances Townsend, who served as homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said, “I think what you will find in the end, there is plenty of blame to go around here. I am more interested in where were the gaps and how do we fix them as opposed to the usual Washington blood sport of the blame game.”
Ms. Townsend added, “I am concerned about reports that CIA passed some information on to other agencies, but not all information. But I am also concerned that the NCTC, which is part of the DNI and was created post 9/11 to connect the dots, apparently failed to do that.”