Obama says intelligence agencies’ failures before airliner attack are ‘not acceptable’

January 6th, 2010 by

WASHINGTON (Dallas News)– President Barack Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies could have prevented the attempt to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day, and used a grim and forceful White House statement to demand rapid improvements in efforts to protect Americans from attack.

“This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” Obama said after meeting with senior national security and intelligence officials, “it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. … That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.”

The administration has been criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for intelligence lapses that allowed Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly carrying undetected explosives, to board the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit despite reports that he had met with al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists in Yemen known to be planning to attack the U.S.

“Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots,” Obama said. “We have to do better, and we will do better, and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.”

On the president’s first full day back at the White House after an 11-day vacation in Hawaii, his words were far sharper than his previous comments since the incident, conveying a controlled anger about what he had heard in preliminary reviews of what went wrong.

A White House official quoted Obama using even more blunt language in the Situation Room meeting. “This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet, but just barely,” he reportedly said.

Although Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to detonate the explosive as the plane started its descent into Detroit with nearly 300 people aboard, it did not ignite because of “technical difficulties,” according to a statement by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who claimed responsibility for the plot.

Obama also warned the 20 officials gathered at the meeting that he would not tolerate the finger-pointing that has emerged among some of their agencies, the official said. No such blame-shifting was reported during the meeting, and officials were said to accept responsibility for their respective failures.

Message received
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who some Republicans have said should be fired, said Obama’s message had been received.

“We got it, and we are moving forward to meet the new challenges,” Blair said.

The White House would not say whether any officials would be fired over the lapses in security. Before Obama’s comments, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still had full confidence in his three top national security officials: Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

In his public statement, Obama listed steps that have been taken, including expansion of the U.S. “no-fly” list to include people with Abdulmutallab’s profile; full-body, pat-down searches for anyone flying to the U.S. from an expanded list of “countries of interest,” additional screening and security on all domestic or U.S.-bound international flights, and an automatic check of terrorism suspects to determine whether they have valid U.S. visas.

“In the days ahead,” Obama said, “I will announce further steps to disrupt attacks, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel.” He said a summary of the ongoing review of the terrorist watch-listing system that did not identify Abdulmutallab would be made public in a few days.

The changes, including the addition of hundreds of people to airline watch lists, have prompted accusations by civil liberties groups that the administration is profiling passengers on the basis of national origin and religion.

Guantánamo plans
Addressing Republican demands that he revisit his plans to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Obama also said he has suspended the repatriation of least 30 Yemenis already cleared for release by a Justice Department-led interagency review. Nearly half of about 200 detainees remaining at the prison are from Yemen.

But he said he will continue with already delayed plans to close the facility, which he said “has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.”

The Yemen-based extremist group, known as AQAP, was founded in part by prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay during George W. Bush’s administration. Yemen’s weak government, poverty and inhospitable terrain have provided fertile ground for the growth of the organization, which Yemeni military forces targeted last month in two U.S.-assisted airstrikes.

The administration has cited extensive intelligence indicating that AQAP is still planning an attack on the U.S.

Abdulmutallab, 23, is due in federal court in Michigan for a bail hearing Friday, and authorities have expressed hope that he will agree to a plea deal in exchange for a reduced prison term. His public defender, Miriam Siefer, did not return calls or e-mail messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Leads from suspect
Federal sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to interfere with the case, said Abdulmutallab provided useful information to the FBI in interviews on Dec. 25, the day of his arrest, explaining his travels in Yemen and connections to the al-Qaeda group there.

Investigators are pursuing leads overseas in response to that information, sources said, and the U.S. and Yemen were considering responses, including additional military attacks targeting AQAP’s operational leaders and radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who survived a bombing attack last month.

Intelligence officials have said that Abdulmutallab first came to U.S. attention as a possible terrorism suspect in November, when his father approached the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to say that his son was in Yemen, had cut off contact with his family and was in bad company. A cable sent to Washington by diplomatic and CIA officials at the embassy said they had been given information that the “subject may be involved with Yemeni-based extremists.”

Under its existing guidelines, the National Counterterrorism Center in suburban McLean, Va., did not consider the information alarming enough to forward Abdulmutallab’s name to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which manages terrorism watch lists throughout the government. Because no check was done, it was not known that he possessed a valid U.S. multiple-entry visa.

One Response

  1. Johnny D

    Blah,blah,blah,blah thats all you’re going to do is flap those gums and do absolutely nothing!What about all those ‘gum flapping’ promises you made before the election,nuthin but runnin’ your mouth.Here’s one for ya Mr.Prez.,have you ever thought that you have people working for you that despises you as a person but do their job because they respect the position AND believe in this country?What a shame that WE ALL are labeld a bunch of dumb shits just because you can’t “keep it up” so to speak and do what you promised you were going to do.To all of you people who voted for this very confused man I say “suck it,suck it hard!” you really piss me off.

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