WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has ordered a series of steps aimed at improving the United States' ability to act more swiftly on intelligence concerning terrorist threats and declared that when the system fails, it is his responsibility alone.
In televised remarks from the White House on January 7, Obama used blunt language to describe the threat that system is meant to protect Americans from.
"We are at war," he said. "We are at war against Al-Qaeda, a far reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them."
The new measures include ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to aggressively pursue every lead on high-priority threats and share information more widely and rapidly with each other. They also include a strengthening of the criteria used to add people to the nation's terror watchlist, and improvements in how intelligence analysts process and integrate the vast amounts of information they receive.
The reforms are more bureaucratic streamlining than dramatic changes to the nation's security apparatus, but Obama vowed that they would make Americans safer.
"Taken together, these reforms will improve the intelligence community's ability to collect, share, integrate, analyze, and act on intelligence swiftly and effectively. In short, they will help our intelligence community do its job even better and protect American lives," he said.
But he admitted that when it comes to keeping terrorists out of America, "there is, of course, no foolproof solution."
Obama said as quickly as the United States develops new screening technologies and procedures, "our adversaries will seek new ways to evade them, as was shown by the Christmas attack. In the neverending race to protect our county, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary."
No Firings, For Now
Obama's orders follow a snap security review of the country's terrorism screening system that was triggered when a 23-year-old Nigerian man attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner with 278 passengers on Christmas Day.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was already on a U.S. watchlist and his association with an offshoot of Al-Qaeda was suspected when he boarded the Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam on December 25. But with a crude syringe and explosive powder taped to his leg, he passed easily through metal detectors and security checkpoints. Only quick action by an alert passenger prevented an explosion as Abdulmutallab tried to detonate his device hours later.
The U.S. intelligence community has come under harsh scrutiny in the wake of the incident for what many see as its failure to prevent a suspected terrorist from entering the United States.
Amid calls by some for Obama to fire one or more of his top officials, the president signaled that for now at least, he has no plans to do so.
"I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer," he said. "For ultimately, the buck stops with me. As president I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility."
Obama said he has asked his secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, to strengthen U.S. partnerships with other countries in an effort to improve terrorist screening systems everywhere possible. At a briefing following the president's remarks, Napolitano said Abdulmutallab's success in boarding the plane in Amsterdam could not be blamed on U.S. officials.
"The [U.S. Transportation Security Administration] does not conduct screening overseas and the Christmas Day incident underscored that the screening procedures at foreign airports are critical to our safety here in the United States," she said.
"Therefore, we have to do all that we can do to encourage foreign authorities to use the same enhanced technologies for aviation security. After all, there were passengers from 17 countries aboard Flight 253. This is an international issue, not just one about the United States," Napolitano added.
Obama's remarks were postponed twice by the White House, which said it took longer than anticipated to declassify sections of the report that contained sensitive national security information.
The speed of the review -- Obama only ordered it only two days earlier -- and two public appearances by the president this week demonstrate how eager the White House is to show the public that corrective steps are being taken quickly.
Sounding stern, Obama said he would not allow the reform plan to lapse and vowed "a sustained and intensive effort of analysis and assessment" of intelligence and security efforts in coming months. "We will measure progress," he said.
"I have repeatedly made it clear, in public with the American people and in private with my national security team, that I will hold my staff, our agencies and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels."
Abdulmutallab was a disaffected young man with no previous terrorist links before Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula recruited him, and Obama noted that Al-Qaeda is increasingly seeking to recruit individuals like him, without any prior terrorist affiliation. For that reason, he said, he has asked his national security team to focus on the growing problem of these "lone recruits."
And while acknowledging that "the vast majority of Muslims reject Al-Qaeda," Obama said the United States must try to reach those who might be sympathetic to their cause.
"We must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world, that Al-Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death, including the murder of fellow Muslims, while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress," he said.
Toward that goal, Obama said the United States "has sought new beginnings with Muslim communities around the world, one which we engage on the basis interest and mutual respect and work together to fulfill the aspirations that all people share: to get an education, to work with dignity, to live in peace and security. That's what America believes in. That's the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists."
Those extremists would like Americans to live in fear and "behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," Obama said, but as long as he is president, he said he "will never hand them that victory."