WASHINGTON — When a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official phoned the U.S. Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared and might have traveled to Yemen, embassy officials did not revoke the young man's visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010.
Instead, officials said Sunday, they marked the file of the son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa. And when they passed the new information on to Washington, Abdulmutallab's name was added to 550,000 others with some alleged terrorist connections — but not to the no-fly list. That meant no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.
Now that Abdulmutallab is charged with trying to blow up a transcontinental airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, some members of Congress are urgently questioning why, eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, security measures still cannot stop terrorists from boarding flights with makeshift bombs.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama ordered a review of two major planks of the aviation security system — watch lists and the use of detection equipment at airport checkpoints.
Officials in several countries, meanwhile, worked to retrace Abdulmutallab's path and to look for security holes. In Nigeria, officials said he arrived in Lagos on Christmas Eve, just hours before departing for Amsterdam. U.S. officials were tracking his travels to Yemen and Scotland Yard is checking on his connections in London, where he studied from 2005 to 2008 at University College London and was president of the Islamic Society.
Obama administration officials scrambled to portray the episode, in which passengers and flight attendants subdued Abdulmutallab and doused the fire he had started, as a test that the air safety system has passed.
"The system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days," Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary said, in an interview on ABC's This Week.
But counterterrorism experts and members of Congress were hardly willing to praise what they said was a security system that has shown to be not nimble enough to respond to the creative techniques devised by would-be terrorists.
The episode has renewed a debate that has quietly continued since the 2001 attacks over the proper balance between security and privacy. The government has spent the last several years cutting the size of the watch list, after criticism that too many people were being questioned at border crossings or checkpoints. Now it may be asked to expand it again.
"You are second-guessed one day and criticized on another," one Transportation Security Administration official told the New York Times. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Privacy advocates, for example, have attempted to stop or at least slow the introduction of advanced checkpoint screening devices that use so-called millimeter waves that allow officers to see under clothing to determine whether a weapon or explosive has been hidden.
To date, only 40 of these machines have been installed at 19 airports across the United States. Amsterdam's airport has 15 of the machines but an official there told the New York Times Sunday they are prohibited from using it on passengers bound for the United States.
For now, U.S. officials have mandated that airports across the world do pat-downs of passengers on flights headed to the United States, which has also raised privacy objections.
So far, an additional 150 full-body imaging machines have been ordered, but nationwide there are approximately 2,200 checkpoint screening lanes.
One target of the administration's security review will be the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, the massive collection of data on more than 500,000 people into which the warning from Abdulmutallab's father's was entered.
A law enforcement official who spoke anonymously with the New York Times said it was not unusual that a one-time comment from a relative would not place a person on the far smaller no-fly list, which has only 4,000 names, or the so-called "selectee" list of 14,000 names of people who are subjected to more thorough searches at checkpoints.
The point of the TIDE database, the official said, is to make sure even the most minor suspicious details are recorded so that they can be connected to new data in the future.
"The information goes in there and it's available to all the agencies," the official said. "The point is to marry up data from different sources over time that may indicate an individual might be a terrorist."