At the FBI's explosives lab in Virginia, experts are picking apart a sophisticated new al-Qaida bomb to figure out whether it could have slipped past airport security and taken down a commercial airplane, U.S. officials said.
The unexploded bomb represents an intelligence prize, the result of a covert CIA operation in Yemen that thwarted a suicide mission around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, officials said. The device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.
The device is an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger's underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters Monday night that she had been briefed earlier in the day about an "undetectable" device that was "going to be on a U.S.-bound airliner."
There were no immediate plans to change security procedures at U.S. airports.
U.S. officials declined to say where the CIA seized the bomb. The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or purchased plane tickets when the CIA seized the bomb, officials said. It was not immediately clear what happened to the would-be bomber.
President Barack Obama had been monitoring the operation since last month, the White House said Monday evening. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the president was assured the device posed no threat to the public.
"The president thanks all intelligence and counterterrorism professionals involved for their outstanding work and for serving with the extraordinary skill and commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand," Hayden said.
The operation unfolded even as the White House and Homeland Security Department assured the public that they knew of no al-Qaida plots against the U.S. around the May 2 anniversary of bin Laden's death in a raid by Navy SEALs on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
On May 1, the Homeland Security Department said, "We have no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the U.S. tied to the one-year anniversary of bin Laden's death."
The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.