The whereabouts of the top U.S. counterterrorism official during the failed terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 Christmas day came under scrutiny Thursday, with the White House denying a Daily News report that he remained on his ski vacation as the day's events unfolded.
An intelligence official with knowledge of National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter's schedule told CBS News he was at the NCTC throughout the the attack and was "in constant, secure communications" after December 25. The official would not go on the record on details of Leiter's travels after Christmas Day.
Denis McDonough, the National Security Council chief of staff, confirmed the official's claim.
"Leiter was … indeed at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, and intimately involved in all aspects of the nation's response to the attempted terrorist attack. … Only after explicit consultations with both the White House and the Director of National Intelligence and considering the current threat environment did Director Leiter take six days of annual leave after the event, which again did not affect in any way his ability to remain engaged with all elements of the United States Government. "
The Daily News earlier reported Leiter was away during the attack and didn't return to his agency's MacLean, Va., headquarters until several days following Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab's attempt to destroy the Detroit-bound flight using an explosives device hidden in his underpants, two officials told the News.
"People have been grumbling that he didn't let a little terrorism interrupt his vacation," one source told the paper.
Following the attack, which was claimed by an al Qaeda branch operating in Yemen, President Barack Obama said the entire intelligence community "failed to connect the dots" on Abdulmutallab, whose presence on a government watch list didn't stop him from boarding Flight 253 in Amsterdam.
NCTC was created in the wake of 9/11 as a clearinghouse for intelligence on terror threats. Leiter was appointed director in 2007 by then-President George W. Bush.
Reports of his whereabouts during the attack a LA Times report that Detroit border officials were set to interrogate Abdulmutallab upon the flight's arrival based on new significant new intelligence regarding the 23-year-old Nigerian.
"The people in Detroit were prepared to look at him in secondary inspection," a senior law enforcement official told the Times. "The decision had been made. The [database] had picked up the State Department concern about this guy - that this guy may have been involved with extremist elements in Yemen."
But the White House, with one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CBS News "there was no new information that emerged when the plane was in the air."
"Customs and Border Protection followed its normal procedures and checks as it prepared for arriving passengers and by doing so they accessed the suspect's TIDE-based record which is why they were going to ask him a few additional questions after he landed before allowing him admission into the country and why they didn't stop him in Amsterdam first," the official said.
Abdulmutallab, who was
Subsequent reports indicate Abdulmutallab spent significant time in Yemen, where officials there said he may have, the radical cleric linked to alleged Fort Hood shooter Hasan Nidal.
U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria were also approached by Abdulmutallab's father, who warned of his son's extremist religious views.
The failure to piece together intelligence on Abdulmutallab before the attack will be the subject of a declassified account of the event, which the White Hosue.
"The information was there," CBS News security analyst Juan Zarate tells "Early Show" co-anchor Harry Smith. "The agencies can't simply dump the information into databases and expect someone to magically find it. They've got evaluate it, flag it. That goes for the State Department, the CIA, that's part of the problem here; This information wasn't flagged and then put together in a way that alerted officials in time to stop him from getting on the flight."
President Barack Obama is expected to address the nation about its findings and recommendations. Mr. Obama was also to reveal new steps intended to thwart terrorist attacks, as he promised earlier in the week.
The president - facing charges that he's been weak on security - will demand changes when he speaks Thursday - and is expected to set deadlines for these changes including more air marshalls, more analysts and better communication, reports CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante.
No firings over the December security debacle are expected - at least for now.