President Barack Obama received a high-level briefing only three days
before Christmas about possible holiday-period terrorist threats
against the US, Newsweek has learned. The briefing was centered on a
written report, produced by US intelligence agencies, entitled "Key
Homeland Threats", a senior US official said.
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.
According to the senior official, the holiday threat briefing, one in a series of regularly-scheduled sessions with top counter-terrorism officials, was held in the White House Situation Room on December 22. Present were representatives of agencies involved in counter-terrorism policy and operations, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller. The CIA and National Intelligence Directors Office were represented by deputy agency heads: CIA deputy director Steven Kappes, and David Gompert, the principal deputy to National Intelligence Czar Dennis Blair. Also present was Michael Leiter, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, a unit of the Intelligence Czar's office which was created after 9/11 to ensure that intelligence reporting about possible terrorist plots was shared quickly among all US agencies who might have some capability to do something about it.
The senior official said that beginning in early December, based on reports coming in from intelligence agencies, policy-makers had begun tracking a stream of information which alluded to a possible holiday-period plot against the US orchestrated from somewhere in Pakistan. However, the official said, this reporting later turned out to be "garbled" and it was determined that the threat probably was a washout. The official denied that the White House received any report, representing the concensus of US intelligence agencies, warning that a Holiday-period plot originating in Yemen and targeting the US homeland could be in the works.
In a background briefing for reporters on December 29, also attributed in an official White House transcript to a "senior administration official", that official asserted that in the wake of the attempted underpants attack, it had become clear to the President and top advisors that before Christmas, the US government was in posession of "bits and pieces" of information, which, if they had been properly knitted together, "could have...allowed us to disrupt the attack or certainly to know much more about the alleged attacker in such a way as to ensure that he was on, as the President suggested in his statement, a no-fly list." In the briefing, the official identified three rough categories of information that the government had which could have been relevant to foiling the attack: information about Abdulmutallab and his plans, info about Al-Qaeda and their plans, and info "about potential attacks during the holiday period."
Asked about what kind of intelligence reporting was circulated to senior officials about possibly holiday period attacks before the failed underpants attack, a US intelligence official, who also asked for anonymity, explained: "As everybody knows, terrorists often speak in coded language, especially when they think their communications might be intercepted. There was no clear discussion of an attack, on Christmas or any other time, in the Middle East or anywhere else. But as veiled as the message was, it was spotted, processed, analyzed, and presented to senior policymakers as a warning sign-however vague-of a holiday attack. While this was handled properly, there were, to put it mildly, virtually no details at all. That happens." When Newsweek asked a senior Administration official about this characterization of a warning which was passed to White House policymakers, and whether it tracked what was presented at the December 22 Presidential briefing, the official would not comment.
Presidential aides are concerned that Obama will somehow be unfairly accused of dropping the ball on the fight against terrorist in Yemen -- a country where, in fact, the evidence suggests Obama, as early as last summer, ordered a significant increase in US intelligence activity. In the weeks before the Christmas attacks, several US officials have told Newsweek, Obama authorized a major expansion in US intelligence, military and material support to Yemen's government -- an escalation which some officials acknowledge could be characterized as a new covert war. But Obama's public and private actions in expanding counter-terrorism operations in Yemen may not help him avoid answering further questions about what intelligence agencies told him -- and didn't tell him -- about possible threats to the US homeland in the days and weeks before the alleged underpants bomber boarded his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.