WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has ordered an investigation into possible U.S. security gaps that enabled a Nigerian man of known extremist leanings to keep his U.S. visa, smuggle explosives aboard a Christmas Day passenger flight and ignite them, the White House said Sunday.
Within hours of the White House attempt to calm the public, a new incident Sunday involving another Nigerian on the same daily flight from Amsterdam led to another emergency landing in Detroit, heightening anxiety amid the year's busiest travel period.
The latest scare aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 involved what the airline described as a "verbally disruptive" passenger and triggered an examination of baggage on the Detroit tarmac to determine if there were explosives on the plane.
Although the passenger spent an "unusually long time in the aircraft lavatory" - an echo of the Christmas day incident -- he was suffering from legitimate illness and is not viewed as a terrorist threat, the Department of Homeland Security later said.
Sunday's scare underscored the concerns in commercial aviation that terrorists have found new ways to penetrate layers of high-tech security put in place since four deadly hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001. Since Friday, aviation authorities have introduced additional screenings for departing passengers and many airlines have announced tighter restrictions on carry-on bags.
Members of Congress said Friday's foiled attack exposed apparent security weaknesses.
Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, called it "a miracle on Christmas Day" that 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to blow up the plane before passengers subdued him and put out a fire that had reached the aircraft wall. Lieberman urged the government to expand the use of full-body scanning devices, now deployed in 19 cities, saying they could have detected the explosives. He spoke on "Fox News Sunday."
Fox News quoted a former senior Homeland Security official as saying that Abdulmutallab ignited the powder while sitting in seat 19A, next to the aircraft's wall and over the fuel tanks and a wing, a location where an explosive blast would be more likely to bring the plane down.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Obama had ordered inquiries to ensure that screening systems keep terrorists and plastic explosives off passenger jets.
Napolitano said that her agency will do "a minute-by-minute, day-by-day scrub" of the handling of a warning to the U.S. embassy in Lagos last month from Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, that his son had taken a turn toward Islamic radicalism.
Abdulmutallab's name was placed on a watch list containing 550,000 names, but Napolitano said that law enforcement agencies had no "specific information" warranting his inclusion on the much narrower "no-fly" list of 14,000 names or a "selectee list" of 4,000 names, each requiring secondary airport screening. She spoke on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
Gibbs said there would be a separate inquiry into the adequacy of airport detection devices.
"We obviously want to review and make sure that all the detection capabilities that are supposed to happen, whether it's a pat-down, whether it's additional security selection, that that happens in each instance," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The Transportation Security Administration is using 40 advanced imaging devices for primary or secondary passenger screenings at 19 airports. The agency says these millimeter-wave technology units can detect a wide range of threats in a matter of seconds.
Abdulmutallab's near success, Lieberman said, argues that any concerns about passenger privacy should be set aside in favor of expanded full-body screening.
Napolitano stressed that, "once this incident occurred, everything happened that should have. The passengers reacted correctly, the crew reacted correctly, within an hour to 90 minutes, and all 128 flights in the air had been notified.
"And those flights already had taken mitigation measures on the off-chance that there was somebody else also flying with some sort of destructive intent."
Lieberman said that Abdulmutallab appears to be "a self-radicalized person" who had broken ties with his family and reached out to extremists in Yemen. He said that the Yemen-based, radical Sheik Anwar al-Awlaki, who earlier had been in touch with the U.S. Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas on Nov. 5, "has got to be a subject and a target of our interest."
Published reports last week said that Awlaki may have died in an attack by Yemeni warplanes on a hideout for al-Qaida leaders taking sanctuary in that country, but those reports have not been confirmed.
Lieberman also questioned why the larger watch list with 550,000 names couldn't be shared with airport screeners, rather than the narrower list used now. That, he said, would have given screeners "basis enough to take this guy out of the line in Amsterdam and do a full body check."
He said that would have found explosives on Abdulmutallab, who was formally charged on Saturday with trying to blow up a commercial plane in a replay of al-Qaida member Richard Reid's failed shoe bombing of a commercial flight days before Christmas in 2002.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky joined Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, in questioning how Abdulmutallab was allowed to retain his U.S. visa after the State Department got the warning from his father.
"It's amazing to me that an individual like this, who was sending out so many signals, could end up getting on a plane going to the U.S.," McConnell told ABC.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Check out McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington.