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Obama Says U.S. Knew Enough To Prevent Failed Airplane Attack

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a top to bottom review of the nation's security screening procedures

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a top to bottom review of the nation's security screening procedures

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has said the country's intelligence agencies had enough information to disrupt the attempted terror attack on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day but failed to understand the bigger picture.

In brief remarks to reporters at the White House on January 5, Obama said, "The bottom line is this: the U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list."

"In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had."

Obama called that failure unacceptable and said he had zero tolerance for the mistakes that were made.

"I will accept that intelligence by its nature is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That's not acceptable and I will not tolerate it," he said.

Crisis Talks

The December 25 attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to cause an explosion on a plane about to land in Detroit was foiled by passengers who noticed flames and acted quickly to extinguish them. Abdulmatallab was arrested and is now in federal custody.

Following the incident, Obama immediately ordered airline passenger-screening procedures tightened and examined for possible weaknesses and instructed his national security adviser to conduct a comprehensive review of the country's terror watchlist.

His latest remarks came after he summoned almost two dozen cabinet officials and agency heads to the White House Situation Room on January 5 for crisis talks on how to prevent future breaches of the nation's security perimeter.

"I called these leaders to the White House because we face a challenge of the utmost urgency. As we saw on Christmas, Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans," Obama said. "And we are determined not only to thwart those plans, but to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat their networks once and for all."

A previously little-known group based in Yemen and calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for recruiting and training Abdulmutallab.

Obama said he had ordered his intelligence and law enforcement officials to give him their initial reviews this week, followed by specific recommendations "for corrective actions to fix what went wrong," which he said would be "implemented immediately."

He promised to publicly release the results of those initial findings and to announce new security measures in coming days.

The U.S. leader acknowledged the country's intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security agencies for their cooperation and intelligence gathering, which he said had "disrupted plots" and saved American lives since the terror attacks of 9/11.

But he characterized Abdulmutallab's very presence on the U.S.-bound airliner as a failure of the nation's security system:

"When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way," Obama said. "And it's my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future."

The president said the investigation so far had revealed that the intelligence community had noted several "red flags," including that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was planning to strike not only U.S. targets in Yemen, but the United States itself, and that the group was working with a particular individual who turned out to be Abdulmutallab.

Guantanamo Closure On Track

Obama also rejected calls from some quarters to revisit his January 2009 decision to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo, which involves returning many detainees to their home countries.

Some 92 of the remaining 198 prisoners left at the detention center hail from Yemen, and for now the White House has suspended their return because of what Obama called the "unstable security situation" there. Six Yemeni nationals were returned in mid-December.

Obama said the U.S. plan has always been to only send released detainees to countries that can assure the United States that its security would be protected, and he left no doubt that the plan to close the center is still on track.

"Make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," he said.

The White House security review is set to bring heavy scrutiny on the U.S. intelligence community, which has been accused of waging turf battles over power, resources, and recognition.

The review comes on top of a scathing report by a top NATO intelligence officer in Afghanistan, who said U.S. intelligence work in that country was overly focused on killing insurgents and out of touch with the Afghan people.

Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan for the U.S. military and its NATO allies, said U.S. intelligence officials in Afghanistan were "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced...and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."

"Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy," Flynn wrote in the report, which was released on January 4 by the Washington-based think tank Center for New American Security.