Lapses allowed suspect to board plane
WASHINGTON — Why was Faisal Shahzad permitted to board a flight for Dubai some 24 hours after investigators of the Times Square terrorism case learned he might be connected to the attempted bombing?
Though Mr. Shahzad was stopped before he could fly away, there were at least two significant lapses in the security response of the government and the airline that allowed him to come close to making his escape, officials of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies said on Tuesday.
First, an F.B.I. surveillance team that had found Mr. Shahzad in Connecticut lost track of him — it is not clear for how long — before he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the officials said. As a result, investigators did not know he was planning to fly abroad until a final passenger list was sent to officials at the federal Customs and Border Protection agency minutes before takeoff.
In addition, the airline he was flying, Emirates, failed to act on an electronic message at midday on Monday notifying all carriers to check the no-fly list for an important added name, the officials said. That meant lost opportunities to flag him when he made a reservation and paid for his ticket in cash several hours before departure.
Top Obama administration officials and some members of Congress on Tuesday praised the government’s handling of the investigation, noting that Mr. Shahzad was identified, tracked and arrested before he could escape.
But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, while saying he was reluctant to criticize those in charge of airport security, added: “Clearly the guy was on the plane and shouldn’t have been. We got lucky.”
Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, said she applauded the work of law enforcement officials in quickly solving the case. Still, she added, “A key question for me is why this suspect was allowed to board the plane in the first place. There appears to be a troubling gap between the time they had his name and the time he got on the plane.”
At a news conference in Washington, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that despite the break in physical surveillance, he had never been concerned that Mr. Shahzad would get away.
“I was here all yesterday and through much of last night, and was aware of the tracking that was going on,” Mr. Holder said. “And I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him.”
Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, called the capture of the accused terrorist “a great team effort.” She added: “The law enforcement work in this case was truly exemplary.”
While the officials emphasized the successful outcome to the chase, a more detailed account, in interviews with officials who spoke of the continuing investigation mostly on condition of anonymity, gave a mixed picture.
On Sunday night, about 24 hours after the smoking Nissan Pathfinder was left on a bustling Manhattan street, investigators identified Mr. Shahzad as the buyer of the car. While the vehicle identification number had been removed from the passenger compartment, a detective found a duplicate number on the engine block.
But at that point, officials said, they were uncertain of Mr. Shahzad’s role and did not think they had enough evidence to arrest him and charge him with a crime. Instead, they began an urgent manhunt; F.B.I. agents located Mr. Shahzad in Bridgeport, Conn., and began to follow him.
It remained uncertain Tuesday night at what time Mr. Shahzad had been found and when he was lost. Paul Bresson, an F.B.I. spokesman, declined to comment on the surveillance issue.
But at about 12:30 p.m. on Monday, more certain that Mr. Shahzad was the suspected terrorist, investigators asked the Department of Homeland Security to put him on the no-fly list. Three minutes later, the department sent airlines, including Emirates, an electronic notification that they should check the no-fly list for an update. At about 4:30 p.m., more information was added to the list, including Mr. Shahzad’s passport number, officials said.
Workers at Emirates evidently did not check the list, because at 6:30 p.m., Mr. Shahzad called the airline and booked a flight to Pakistan via Dubai, officials said. At 7:35 p.m., he arrived at the airport, paid cash for his ticket and was given a boarding pass.
Airlines are not required to report cash purchases, a Homeland Security official said. Emirates actually did report Mr. Shahzad’s purchase to the Transportation Security Administration — but only hours later, when he was already in custody, the official said.
Mr. Shahzad had evaded the surveillance effort and bought his ticket seven hours after his name went on the no-fly list. But the system gives security officials one more chance to stop a dangerous passenger.
As is routine, when boarding was completed for the flight, Emirates Flight EK202, the final passenger manifest was sent to the National Targeting Center, operated in Virginia by Customs and Border Protection. There, at about 11 p.m., analysts discovered that Mr. Shahzad was on the no-fly list and had just boarded a plane.
They sounded the alarm, and minutes later, with the jet still at the gate, its door was opened and agents came aboard and took Mr. Shahzad into custody, officials said. The airliner then pulled away from the gate but was called back.
“Actually I have a message for you to go back to the gate immediately,” an air traffic controller told the pilot, according to a recording posted to the Web by LiveATC.net, which tracks air communications. “I don’t know exactly why, but you can call your company for the reason,” the controller added.
After the plane was called back, the authorities removed two more passengers. They were questioned and cleared. They and all the rest of the passengers were rescreened, as was the baggage, and the flight took off about seven hours late.
An Emirates spokeswoman, who said she was not allowed to speak on the record, declined to comment on the claims by government officials that the airline had neglected to recheck the no-fly list. “Emirates takes every necessary precaution to ensure the safety and well-being of its passengers and crew and regrets the inconvenience caused,” the airline said in a statement.
One long-planned change in security procedures may reduce the chances of a repeat failure to check an updated no-fly list, officials said. The Transportation Security Administration is taking over the job of checking passenger manifests against the no-fly list under its Secure Flight program.
Such checks are currently being done by the T.S.A. for domestic flights, and the agency is scheduled to be checking all international flights by the end of the year, agency officials said. Autor: Scott Shane