U.S. and Yemeni officials say the supposed would-be bomber at the heart of an al-Qaida airliner plot was actually an informant working for the CIA.
The revelation, first reported by The Los Angeles Times, shows how the CIA was able to get its hands on a sophisticated underwear bomb well before an attack was set in motion.
Officials say the informant was working for the CIA and Saudi Arabian intelligence when he was given the bomb. He then turned the device over to authorities. Officials say the informant is safely out of Yemen.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence matter.
In the wake of a failed al-Qaida plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner, the Obama administration on Tuesday sought to reassure travelers that security at American airports is as good as it has ever been.
Overseas, where such plots originate, security is a different story.
While airline checks in the United States mean passing through an onerous, sometimes embarrassing series of pat-downs and body scans, procedures overseas can be a mixed bag.
The United States cannot force other countries to permanently adopt the expensive and intrusive measures that have become common in American airports over the past decade.
The latest al-Qaida plot originated in Yemen and used an upgrade over the bomb that failed to detonate on board an airplane over Detroit on Christmas 2009.
Officials said this new bomb was meant to be concealed in a passenger's underwear, contained no metal and used a chemical — lead azide — that was to be a detonator in a nearly successful 2010 plot to attack cargo planes.
Working with an al-Qaida informant and foreign intelligence services, the CIA disrupted the latest plot before the would-be bomber even picked a target or bought his tickets, officials say.
The FBI is still analyzing the sophisticated explosive. But, based on preliminary findings, security procedures at U.S. airports remained unchanged a day after the plot became public.
That was a reflection of both the U.S. confidence in its security systems and a recognition that the government can't realistically expect travelers to endure much more. Increased costs and delays to airlines and shipping companies could have a global economic impact, too.
"I would not expect any real changes for the traveling public," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich. "There is a concern that overseas security doesn't match ours. That's an ongoing challenge."
The Transportation Security Administration sent advice to some international air carriers and airports about security measures that might stave off an attack from a hidden explosive.
It's the same advice the United States has issued before, but there was a thought that it might get new attention in light of the foiled plot.
The U.S. has worked for years to try to improve security for U.S.-bound flights originating at international airports. And many countries agree that security needs to be better. But while plots such as the Christmas attack have spurred changes, some security gaps that have been closed in the U.S. remain open overseas.
Officials believe that body scanners, for instance, probably would have detected this latest attempt by al-Qaida to bring down a jetliner. Such scanners allow screeners to see objects hidden beneath a passenger's clothes.
But while scanners are in place in airports nationwide, their use is scattershot overseas. Even in security-conscious Europe, the European Union has not required full-body imaging machines for all airports, though a number of major airports in Paris, London, Frankfurt, and elsewhere use them.
All passengers on U.S.-bound flights are checked against terrorist watch lists and law enforcement databases.
In some countries, U.S. officials are stationed in airports to offer advice on security matters.
In some cases, though, the United States is limited to hoping that other countries follow the security advice from the Transportation Security Administration.
"Even if our technology is good enough to spot it, the technology is still in human hands and we are inherently fallible," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. "And overseas, we have varying degrees of security depending on where the flight originates."
Al-Qaida has repeatedly tried to take advantage of those overseas gaps. The Christmas 2009 bombing originated in Amsterdam, where the bomber did not receive a full-body scan. And in 2010, terrorists smuggled bombs onto cargo jets, which receive less scrutiny than passenger planes.
In both those instances, the bombs were made by al-Qaida's master bomb maker in Yemen, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Officials believe this latest bomb was the handiwork of al-Asiri or one of his students.
The CIA was tipped off to the plot last month by an informant close to al-Qaida, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case. The agency recovered the bomb in recent weeks, but it's not clear what happened to the would-be suicide bomber.
The bomber "is in no position to harm us," Rogers said.
"Neither the bomb nor any other part of the plot represents an ongoing threat to the U.S.," Schiff said.
In the meantime, Americans traveled Tuesday with little apparent concern.
"We were nervous — for a minute," said Nan Gartner, a retiree on her way to Italy from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. "But then we thought, we aren't going anywhere near Yemen, so we're OK."
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