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Reforms underway following bomb plot

Jan. 22, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By GREGG CARLSTROM   |   Comments

Intelligence and homeland security officials say they're making important reforms in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bomb plot, such as improving information sharing and streamlining their terror watch lists.

They're also cracking down on spelling errors.

President Barack Obama issued a three-page memo earlier this month outlining 16 corrective actions for federal agencies to take in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bomb plot, in which a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet. Officials say the failure to keep Abdulmutallab off the plane was largely a policy failure: Intelligence agencies had enough information to decide he was a threat, but that information didn't meet the standards for placing someone on a no-fly list.

"The derogatory information associated with [Abdulmutallab] did not meet the existing policy standards ... for him to be ‘watch-listed,'" said Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Jan. 20.

Leiter said those standards are now being revised to give intelligence agencies a "greater degree of flexibility" to put people on watch lists.

The Homeland Security Department's response to the plot has mostly focused on increased screening for airline passengers. Citizens of 14 countries, most with majority Muslim populations, are now subject to additional screening; DHS also plans to deploy 450 imaging systems and explosive detection machines by the end of the year. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also said extra air marshals will be deployed on flights.

"DHS will [also] work with our partners to re-evaluate and modify the criteria and process used to create watch lists," said David Heyman, the department's assistant secretary for policy.

The White House review of the Christmas Day plot concluded that the government's failure to stop it wasn't caused by poor intelligence sharing. Quite the opposite: Officials say the problem was too much raw information and not enough analytical capacity.

So intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said they are accelerating the launch of new technologies aimed at intelligence analysis. Many tools, such as Intellipedia the intelligence community's answer to Wikipedia are already being used; Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said his office is trying to speed their adoption.

"Trying to glean actionable intelligence from the flood of information we receive is akin to taking a sip of water from a fire hose," said FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Leiter said NCTC would expand the training offered to analysts. But legislators didn't hint at a larger budget or expanded resources for the agency, which employs about 300 analysts.

Officials say the failed plot also tipped them off to the potentially serious consequences of a small mistake: a spelling error. The State Department incorrectly spelled Abdulmutallab's name on his visa application. When Abdulmutallab's father warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that his son had been radicalized, embassy staffers couldn't find Abdulmutallab's name in their visa database because it was entered with an incorrect spelling.

Many commercial search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, already have software that alerts users to potentially incorrect spellings.

"You go on a Google search … you type in a name, and it says, ‘Did you mean so-and-so?'" said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "Why wouldn't that be a relatively simple thing to do?"

Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management, said State already has software that looks for spelling errors when visa applications are compared against terror watch lists. But the department doesn't use similar software when it compares watch lists with the list of already-issued visas.

"We are changing that," Kennedy said.

Leiter said NCTC is also working on a solution to the spelling problem, and expects to have one installed "within weeks." NCTC couldn't say whether it planned to buy the software commercially or develop a solution in-house.

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