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King seeks info on terror suspect to plug security holes

Rep. Peter King asks questions during the House

Rep. Peter King asks questions during the House Homeland Security Committee in Washington, D.C. (Dec. 3, 2009) Photo Credit: Bloomberg

Rep. Peter King said Monday he wants to know what the father of the Detroit terror suspect told U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria about his son's embrace of radical Islam and what the State Department did next.

King said the government file on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who boarded an international flight to Detroit with explosives despite being on a terrorism watch list, could help pinpoint national security weaknesses. "Why, with so many red flags, was he able to be let through?" asked King (R-Seaford), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Senate homeland security chairman Joe Lieberman said Monday he'll hold congressional hearings next month.

And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said an "extensive review is under way. "Our system did not work in this instance," she said on NBC's "Today" show. "No one is happy or satisfied with that."

According to State Department spokesman Fred Lash, Abdulmutallab's father expressed worry to embassy officials about his son's ties to extremists on Nov. 19, but a name check the next day turned up nothing worrisome.

However, Abdulmutallab was eventually put in the 550,000-name Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, which is maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. The list does not subject those on it to intense scrutiny at airports or prevent them from flying. Security officials have said they lacked evidence to take such steps.

Precisely how and when Abdulmutallab, who is charged with trying to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, went from being on the State Department's radar to being on a counterterrorism watch list is unclear.

King said the State Department notified the intelligence community of its concerns over Abdulmutallab on Nov. 23. Lash was not immediately able Monday to confirm the information.

Stewart Baker, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration, said some in the intelligence community wish the State Department had been "more clear" about its concerns over Abdulmutallab.

Baker said judgment calls were made that turned out to be wrong. The real issue, he said, is an approach to the watch list that favors the concerns of privacy advocates and civil libertarians over safety. "The government became gun shy about putting people on that list," he said.

Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Baker could not be more wrong. There are numerous examples, he said, of innocent people being put on the list, and fallout from the Christmas Day bomb plot should not include a firmer embrace of a failed approach.

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