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Exclusive: Obama Got Pre-Christmas Intelligence Briefing About Terror Threats to 'Homeland'

Posted by on Jan. 3, 2010 at 11:01 PM
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Mark Hosenball
President Obama received a high-level briefing only three days before Christmas about possible holiday-period terrorist threats against the U.S., NEWSWEEK has learned. The briefing was centered on a written report, produced by U.S. intelligence agencies, titled "Key Homeland Threats," a senior U.S. official says.

The administration official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, says that nowhere in this document was there any mention of Yemen, whose
affiliate of Al Qaeda is now believed to have been behind the 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 possible holiday attacks and whether Yemen came up during oral discussions.

According to the official, the holiday threat briefing—one in a series of regularly scheduled sessions with top counterterrorism officials
was held in the White House Situation Room on Dec. 22. Present were representatives of agencies involved in counterterrorism policy and operations, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. The CIA and the national intelligence director's 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 Counterterrorism Center, a unit of the intelligence czar's office that was created after 9/11 to ensure that intelligence reporting about possible terrorist plots was shared quickly among all U.S. agencies that might have some capability to do something about it.

The senior official says that beginning in early December, based on reports coming in from intelligence agencies, policymakers had begun tracking a stream of information that alluded to a possible holiday-period plot against the U.S. orchestrated from somewhere in Pakistan. However, the official says, this reporting later turned out to be "garbled," and it was determined that the threat was
probably a washout. The official denies that the White House received any report, representing the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies, warning that a holiday-period plot originating in Yemen and targeting the U.S. homeland could be in the works.

In a background briefing for reporters on Dec. 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 advisers that before Christmas the U.S. government was in possession 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, about Al Qaeda and its plans, and about "potential attacks during the holiday period."

Asked about what kind of intelligence reporting was circulated to senior officials about possible holiday-period attacks before the underpants incident, a U.S. 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 vagueof 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 that was passed to White House policymakers, and whether it tracked what was presented at the Dec. 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 terrorists in Yemen
a country where, in fact, the evidence suggests that Obama, as early as last summer, ordered a significant increase in U.S. intelligence activity. In the weeks before the Christmas incident, several U.S. officials have told NEWSWEEK, Obama authorized a major expansion in U.S. intelligence, military, and material support to Yemen's governmentan escalation that some officials acknowledge could be characterized as a new covert war. But Obama's public and private actions in expanding counterterrorism operations in Yemen may not help him avoid answering further questions about what intelligence agencies told himand didn't tell himabout possible threats to the U.S. homeland in the days and weeks before the alleged underpants bomber boarded his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

by on Jan. 3, 2010 at 11:01 PM
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