WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano conceded Monday that the aviation security system failed when a young man on a watchlist with a U.S. visa in his pocket and a powerful explosive hidden on his body was allowed to board a fight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The Obama administration has ordered investigations into the two areas of aviation security — how travellers are placed on watch lists and how passengers are screened — as critics questioned how the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged in the airliner attack was allowed to board the Dec. 25 flight.
A day after saying the system worked, Napolitano backtracked, saying her words had been taken out of context.
“Our system did not work in this instance,” she said on NBC television’s “Today” show. “No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way.”
The White House press office, travelling with President Barack Obama in Hawaii, said Monday that the president would make a statement from the Kaneoho Marine Base around 3 p.m. ET.
Billions of dollars have been spent on aviation security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when commercial airliners were hijacked and used as weapons. Much of that money has gone toward training and equipment that some security experts say could have detected the explosive device that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of hiding on his body on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Abdulmutallab has been charged in federal court with trying to detonate the device as the plane approached Detroit. The device burst into flames instead, according to authorities, and he was subdued by passengers. The plane landed safely.
A federal judge in Detroit postponed until Jan. 8 a hearing on a request by the government to obtain a DNA sample from Abdulmutallab. No reason was given.
Harold Demuren, the head of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, said Abdulmutallab paid cash Dec. 16 for the $2,831 round-trip ticket from Lagos, Nigeria, to Detroit via Amsterdam. He said Abdulmutallab’s ticket came from a KLM office in Accra, Ghana.
Demuren said Abdulmutallab checked into his flight with only a small carryon bag.
On Sunday, Napolitano said, “One thing I’d like to point out is that the system worked.” On Monday, she said she was referring to the system of notifying other flights as well as law enforcement on the ground about the incident soon after it happened.
The top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee took issue with Napolitano’s initial assessment.
Airport security “failed in every respect,” Rep. Peter King said Sunday on CBS television’s “Face the Nation.” ”It’s not reassuring when the secretary of Homeland Security says the system worked.“
Investigators are piecing together Abdulmutallab’s brazen attempt to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Law enforcement officials say he tucked below his waist a small bag holding his potentially deadly concoction of liquid and powder explosive material.
Abdulmutallab had been placed in a U.S. database of people suspected of terrorist ties in November, but there was not enough information about his activity that would place him on a watch list that could have kept him from flying.
British officials placed Abdulmutallab’s name on a U.K. watch list after he was refused a student visa in May. However, adding him to the list was a matter of routine, not because he was thought to pose a threat, according to a Home Office official. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
Home Secretary Alan Johnson said police and security services are looking at whether Abdulmutallab was radicalized in Britain.
Abdulmutallab received a degree in engineering and business finance from University College London last year and later applied to re-enter Britain to study at another institution. Johnson said Monday he was refused entry because officials suspected the school was not genuine and they then put his name on the list.
Johnson says that people on the list can transit the U.K. but cannot enter the country.
Officials said he came to the attention of U.S. intelligence last month when his father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, a prominent Nigerian banker, reported to the American Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s increasingly extremist religious views.
In a statement released Monday, Abdulmutallab’s family in Nigeria said that after his “disappearance and stoppage of communications while schooling abroad,” his father reached out to Nigerian security agencies two months ago. The statement says the father then approached foreign security agencies for “their assistance to find and return him home.”
The family says: “It was while we were waiting for the outcome of their investigation that we arose to the shocking news of that day.”
The statement did not offer any specifics on where Abdulmutallab had been.
Abdulmutallab’s success in smuggling and partially igniting the material on Friday’s flight prompted the Obama administration to promise a sweeping review of aviation security, even as the Homeland Security secretary defended the current system.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the government will investigate its systems for placing suspicious travellers on watch lists and for detecting explosives before passengers board flights.
Both lines of defence were breached in an improbable series of events Christmas Day that spanned three continents and culminated in a struggle and fire aboard a Northwest jet shortly before its safe landing in Detroit.