WASHINGTON — The Times Square bomb suspect was on the federal no-fly list and under surveillance but still managed to get aboard a jetliner bound for the United Arab Emirates, sources said Tuesday.
Faisal Shahzad had been under constant watch at his Bridgeport, Conn., home since 3 p.m. Monday and federal authorities had planned to arrest him there that evening, two people familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press. Authorities believe he decided to flee after being spooked by news reports that investigators were seeking a Pakistani suspect in Connecticut, one of the people said.
Shahzad somehow lost the investigators who were trailing him, the two people said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident. It was unclear when Shahzad eluded investigators.
The FBI and the NYPD declined to comment.
The night's events, gradually coming to light, also underscored the flaws in the nation's aviation security system, which despite its technologies, lists and information sharing, often comes down to someone making a right call.
A law enforcement official told NBC News that the Transportation Security Administration had alerted airlines, but the information hadn't yet gotten into airline systems. A senior U.S. official told NBC that if the system had worked properly, "He should have never been able to get on that airplane."
As federal agents closed in, Shahzad was aboard Emirates Flight 202. He reserved a ticket on the way to John F. Kennedy International Airport, paid cash on arrival and walked through security without being stopped. Late Tuesday night, Newsweek reported that Shahzad spent more than three hours at the airport unwatched by authorities.
By the time Customs and Border Protection officials spotted Shahzad's name on the passenger list and recognized him as the bombing suspect they were looking for, he was in his seat and the plane was preparing to leave the gate.
It didn't. At the last minute, the pilot was notified, the jetliner's door was opened and Shahzad was taken into custody.
After authorities pulled Shahzad off the plane, he admitted he was behind the crude Times Square car bomb, officials said. He also claimed to have been trained at a terror camp in Pakistan's lawless tribal region of Waziristan, according to court documents. That raised increased concern that the bombing was an international terror plot.
Not ‘in danger of losing him’
The Obama administration played down the fact that Shahzad had made it aboard the plane. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would not talk about it, other than to say Customs officials prevented the plane from taking off. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the security system has fallback procedures in place for times like this, and they worked.
And Attorney General Eric Holder said he "was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him."
It may be that the airline either never saw or ignored key information that would have kept Shahzad off the plane, a fact that dampened what was otherwise hailed as a fast, successful law enforcement operation.
The senior U.S. official who spoke to NBC News said Shahzad's name was put onto the no-fly list about 11 a.m. Monday morning, some 12 hours before he was taken into custody.
A law enforcement official told NBC that the TSA sent notifications to airlines but the "information had not yet been populated in the airline's system to the point of triggering an automated alert."
The official said Shahzad's name should have set off alarms throughout the ticketing and boarding process. The system should have been triggered when he purchased the ticket.
Video: Sheehan: Bomb plot had 'stunning degree of incompetence' If he purchased the ticket before his name was placed on the list, then the airline and authorities should have been alerted when he got his boarding pass, either from an agent or one of the self-service kiosks.
That's especially true on an international flight because his passport would have been electronically scanned before he was issued a boarding pass. Even at the boarding gate, there are systems that alert TSA and customs officials to someone on the no-fly list attempting to board a flight.
When Emirates sold the ticket, it was working off an outdated list. Airline officials would have had to check a Web forum where updates are sent if it were to have flagged him. Because they did not, law enforcement officials were not aware of his travel plans until they received the passenger list 30 minutes before takeoff, the official said.
Jet didn't leave the gate
There was also some confusion over whether the plane left the gate and was recalled.
The law enforcement officer told NBC News that Shahzad boarded the plane and the door was closed, but the plane didn't leave the gate. The door was reopened and Shahzad was removed from the plane.
The plane was then cleared to leave the gate and did so. Moments later, officials thought better of it and decided they needed to rescreen passengers and cargo and brought the plane back, the law enforcement official told NBC.
Emirates did not return repeated calls for comments. Earlier in the day, the company issued a general statement saying it was cooperating with investigators and takes every precaution to ensure its passengers' safety.
The reliance on airlines to check government lists has been a known problem for years. The government has long planned to take over the responsibility for matching passengers to watch lists, but the transition has taken longer than expected. The new program is still in the test phase for domestic airlines and is still months away from beginning with international carriers.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs blamed the airline but emphasized a more positive bottom line: U.S. authorities did get Shahzad on the no-fly list and he never took off.
"There's a series of built-in redundancies, this being one of them," Gibbs said. "If there's a mistake by a carrier, it can be double-checked."
This article includes information from The Associated Press and NBC News.