What the White House Report on Underpants Attack Didn’t Spell Out

Newsweek

A White House report on the foiled Christmas Day attempted airliner bombing provided only the sketchiest of details about what may have been the most politically sensitive of its findings: how the White House itself was repeatedly warned about the prospect of an attack on the U.S. homeland by Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

There was, U.S. intelligence officials emphasize, no “smoking gun” or “tactical” piece of intelligence that would have alerted the White House that Al Qaeda was plotting to blow up a U.S.-bound civilian aircraft during the holiday season.

Still, the report refers, obliquely, to what appear to be significant information that had not previously been disclosed by the White House: U.S. intelligence analysts had “highlighted” an evolving “strategic threat” that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP (as the group in Yemen is known) “posed to the U.S. homeland.”

It also states that “some of the improvised explosive device tactics AQAP might use against U.S. interests were highlighted” in other “finished intelligence products.”

The report released by the White House─which was delayed for hours while being heavily edited during the declassification process─provides no further details on what these intelligence reports said. Nor did it spell out how alarming were the warnings, or when and how often they were briefed to John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser (or whether they were ever raised with Obama himself.)

Two counterterrorism officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, told Declassified that U.S. spy agencies had actually issued multiple reports between late 2008 and Christmas 2009 warning that AQAP was posing a growing threat and that the group was plotting against targets in the West in general and inside the U.S. in particular.

Intelligence reports on this subject were issued by the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA and what one official described as the “Intelligence Community”─a reference either to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or the National Intelligence Council, a panel of the intelligence community’s most senior analysts that is part of the intelligence czar’s office. (A spokesman for the intelligence czar’s office had no comment.) Those reports would have been routinely circulated to Obama administration officials, including Brennan as well as other Obama administration policymakers, the officials said.

The circulation of the reports to Brennan, who Obama asked to conduct the government’s review of the Detroit incident, may explain why he so far is the only U.S. official to accept any blame for the multiple failures identified in the report. “I told the president I let him down,” Brennan said in a briefing for reporters Thursday afternoon, shortly after the report was delivered to Obama. “I am the president’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism. And I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team.”

White House officials have given no hint that Obama has lost any confidence in Brennan, who is described by current and former colleagues as a dedicated and consummate professional with more than 30 years of experience in the U.S. intelligence community. They also say that “strategic warnings” such as those referred to in the report are often briefed to White House officials and provide no clear road map as to specific steps that can be taken to foil particular plots.

Still, some former colleagues say it would have been Brennan’s job to have pressed the intelligence community to follow up on these “strategic warnings.” Indeed, the report acknowledges that such aggressive “follow up” by the U.S. intelligence community should have─and didn’t take place. But the report places no blame on any U.S. intelligence officials, or even any agency, for what it clearly labels as a failure─an absence that appears to conflict with Obama’s initial statement issued while he was still in Hawaii that he intends to hold his intelligence community “accountable.”

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