ASPEN, Colo. | The U.S.-born Yemeni cleric known for inspiring Muslim attacks against America had a “direct operational role” in the Christmas Day airliner bomb plot and would be a legitimate target for U.S. intelligence agencies, a top U.S. counterintelligence official says.
Michael E. Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, declined to elaborate on what he meant in saying that Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had a “direct operational role” in the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner.
However, that kind of role would make anyone a legitimate target for U.S. intelligence agencies to capture or kill, he said.
“Individuals aren’t targeted because they have bad ideas, they aren’t targeted because they inspire people. They are targeted because they are involved in operations directed against the United States,” Mr. Leiter told the Aspen Security Forum, a national security colloquium of government officials, industry leaders and analysts sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
He declined to comment specifically on whether Mr. al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, is on a list of top terrorist targets whom U.S. agencies can lawfully kill. Last week, President Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, told The Washington Times that “terrorists should not be able to hide behind their passports and their citizenship, and that includes U.S. citizens.”
“These are tough issues and they deserve a full and open debate,” Mr. Leiter said, adding that when it comes to deciding whom to target, “there has to be a process and a level of trustworthiness in that process.” He declined to elaborate.
Mr. al-Awlaki, who has dual U.S.-Yemeni citizenship status, is the spiritual leader of the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization.
He praised Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national accused of trying to blow up an airliner with 300 people on board with explosions hidden in his underpants on Christmas Day. The cleric also praised Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, who is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30 others in a shooing rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.
At the security forum, Mr. Leiter also addressed his agency’s role in the governmentwide series of errors that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to board a U.S.-bound airliner, even though he had been identified as a potential threat.
“We clearly didn’t perform as we ought to,” he said, adding that what occurred was “a series of discrete errors” rather than a systemwide failure.
“We didn’t connect all the information about Abdulmutallab to get him to the point where he wasn’t allowed to get on the plane,” Mr. Leiter said. Although the Nigerian was known to U.S. authorities as a potential terrorist, “he was not placed in no-fly status.”
He attributed the failure in part to a high threshold that had been set up for the no-fly list over concerns that it was unduly affecting innocent travelers. The threshold has since been changed, he said, declining to provide details.
He strongly rejected the suggestion that the Abdulmutallab case showed the pre-Sept. 11 information-sharing problems between U.S. intelligence agencies had remained unsolved.
“There were some failings of individual agencies to pass on information,” Mr. Leiter said. But unlike those before the Sept. 11 attacks, the failings were not “policy choices” but instead were “literally silly technical glitches.”
The problem facing his agency now is different, he said.
“The single biggest challenge I have is that I have more data than I know what to do with,” he said, noting that every day his center receives 8,000 to 10,000 individual intelligence reports containing more than 10,000 names and places 300 to 400 people on the terrorism watch list.
Mr. Leiter said that, rather than looking for a needle in a haystack, it is “like looking for one needle in a pile of needles, covered with a haystack.”