When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was placed on the British government's watch list in May 2009 and banned from entering the country, the U.S. embassy in London (and by extension the U.S. State Department), as well as U.S. intelligence agencies, were notified of this move as part of information-sharing agreements entered into by a number of Western governments after the September 11, 2001 attacks, says a U.S. State Department employee on the condition of anonymity because of concern that by speaking about the situation, their job could be endangered.
"We have agreements with a number of different countries that work with us cooperatively on intelligence matters," says the State Department employee. "A number of the treaties work through our justice departments or foreign offices or intelligence and interior or homeland security agencies. Several departments here in Washington got the information from London and it didn't trigger anything within our own system.
This employee says that despite statements from the Obama Administration, such information was flagged and given higher priority during the Bush Administration, but that since the changeover "we are encouraged to not create the appearance that we are profiling or targeting Muslims. I think career employees were uncomfortable with the Bush procedures and policies and were relieved to not have to live under them any longer."
The Obama Administration is attempting to shift blame for Abdulmutallab, pointing reporters to information that the Nigerian was given a visa by the U.S. embassy in London to travel to the U.S. in 2008, around the same time that he graduated from University College London, a well-respected university. But the State Department source says at that time Abdulmutallab was not on a watch list and traveled to Houston on that visa without incident. A year later, in May 2009, his application for a student visa to return to Britain was rejected because the college Abdulmutallab claimed he would attend was "bogus," and that red flag was shared with U.S. State Department, Homeland Security Department, U.S. Justice Department, and almost certainly U.S. intelligence agencies.
The State source says that several schools, particularly those with ties to the British Muslim community, have come under tighter scrutiny over the past five years, and when foreign nationals with Muslim backgrounds apply to those schools, it is red flag for British security offices.
"I'm not saying that this kind of screw up might not have happened in the Bush Administration," the State source says, referring to the Christmas Day snafu. "I'm just saying that a number of us were encouraged to have a different mindset about such intel and such individuals, and today, we are encouraged not to have that same mindset."