Congress Presses Officials on Xmas Attack

From left, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Intelligence Reform. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The Obama administration has so far described only in broad strokes how it will repair an intelligence system that failed to stop an attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack. Now, with Republicans newly emboldened, Congress starts pressing for specifics.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other senior security officials head to Congress for two days of hearings about how purported Nigerian al Qaeda operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly was allowed to board a plane for Detroit armed with a bomb.

A White House report this month outlined a series of missteps, including name misspellings, ignored warnings and human oversights. But for a failed detonator and the swift action of passengers, the attack might have killed all 289 people aboard.

Special Report: The Christmas Day Terror Attack

The administration was likely to get a dressing down for its intelligence failures Wednesday. And the election Tuesday of Republican Scott Brown to a longtime-Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts could provide the Republicans with more incentive to take on the administration's national security policy. Brown, who made security a key part of his campaign, will deprive Democrats of a key 60th vote necessary to keep Republicans from blocking their agenda.

Even before a hearing got under way Wednesday morning, the administration's choice to lead the Transportation Security Administration withdrew his name, saying his nomination had become a lightning rod for those with a political agenda.

President Barack Obama had tapped Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent, to lead the TSA in September but his confirmation was blocked by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. Republicans voiced concerns that Southers would allow TSA employees to engage in collective bargaining with the government. Questions also were raised about a reprimand Southers had received two decades ago for running background checks on his then-estranged wife's boyfriend.

Lawmakers were expected to press for a number of suggested fixes for air safety and security and to strengthen intelligence assessments of potential terror risks. Some of those proposals, like putting federal marshals on all 29,000 daily flights, would cost billions.

"If the answer is, 'We don't have enough money for marshals,' well, we've got to have marshals," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose Intelligence Committee will be holding closed-door hearings Thursday. "I know a marshal when I see a marshal, and I feel good when I see a marshal."

Others would cost little or nothing, like making sure the State Department temporarily suspends U.S. visas for a person when someone raises security concerns, as Abdulmutallab's father did a month before the flight.

"Clearly, some elements of our homeland defenses are not working as we need them to be. We need to find out what and why and fix them," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, whose Homeland Security panel was questioning Napolitano and others Wednesday.

Authorities say Abdulmutallab was affiliated with an al Qaeda branch in Yemen. Intelligence officials failed to recognize the threat posed by the troubled Arab country, which had been previously regarded as a menace only to U.S. targets abroad. Now, that threat has reached U.S. borders.

The House Armed Services Committee was to question military officials about how they're responding to that threat and whether they can do so without losing pace in Afghanistan and Iraq.