Mark Hosenball reports that President Obama received a pre-Christmas about “Key Homeland Threats” posing a risk to the holiday season. This strikes me as the key graf:
The senior Administration official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that nowhere in this document was there any mention of Yemen, whose Al-Qaeda affiliate is now believed to have been behind the unsuccessful Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a transatlantic airliner with a bomb hidden in his underpants. However, the official declined to disclose any other information about the substance of the briefing, including what kind of specific warnings, if any, the President was given about possibly holiday attacks and whether Yemen came up during oral discussions.
And there is the legitimate subject of inquiry from Congress. Going off what Hosenball has reported, this isn’t like George W. Bush’s August 6, 2001 PDB, which discussed a staggering 70 FBI investigations into al-Qaeda; articulated al-Qaeda’s desire to use planes as missiles; and placed a forthcoming homeland attack within the context of escalating al-Qaeda threats. A possible parallel, unproven at this point — indeed, there’s no evidence for it, aside from the speculation that follows — is whether the Christmas briefing occurred in the context of earlier briefings in which the intelligence community and key White House aides expressed “hair on fire” concerns about “the system blinking red,” since that was the situation in the pre-9/11 summer of 2001. But, again: unless inquiries uncover such a thing, there isn’t any evidence suggesting that. To the contrary: as Hosenball reports, a “stream of information which alluded to a possible holiday-period plot” emanating from Pakistan turned out to be most likely “a washout.”
But here’s the issue: it’s not simply what’s in the intelligence brief. It’s in what the response was. And in this case, it looks initially like the inputs were simply insufficient to prompt an all-hands Homeland Security/State response that would have yanked Abdulmutallab’s visa or placed him on the no-fly. The way to do that is to significantly lower the standards for keeping people out of the U.S., and that has significant consequences for all manner of other interests. If this is really the direction we want to go in the name of perfect security — for an al-Qaeda already lowering its sights from planes-as-missiles to on-board detonations — then let’s debate that. But let’s not pretend there’s a cost-free solution.
Update: OK, this I’d say ought to have mobilized TSA. Brennan got a brief on how AQAP tried to use an underpants bomb to assassinate Saudi Prince Nayef. (Another failed attempt.) I truly hope Congress investigates what Brennan did with that information — whether and how it went to the Department of Homeland Security, in particular, and what, if anything, it spurred from a security or law-enforcement agency. (Thanks to Ratfood in comments.)