WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama asserted on Tuesday the government had enough information to foil the attempted bombing on a Christmas Day airline flight but intelligence agencies “failed to connect those dots” and left nearly 300 passengers and crew in peril.
Obama called that unacceptable. “I will not tolerate it,” he said.
The accused attacker, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has claimed ties to al-Qaida. Witnesses said he ignited an explosive mixture but it failed to do serious damage to the Northwest jetliner or its passengers, and he was subdued by other passengers and airline crew members on the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
Obama, speaking after meeting with his Cabinet and national security team, declared, “We have to do better, and we will do better. And we will do it quickly.”
But while he expressed clear displeasure with the U.S. failure to prevent the suspect from boarding a U.S.-bound flight, Obama did not announce any firings or job reassignments.
According to a White House statement released later, Obama told his gathering of officials: “This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable.”
“While there will be a tendency for finger pointing, I will not tolerate it,” he told the high-level officials, according to the statement.
Obama also said he was suspending the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. The Christmas attack has raised concerns about Yemen, because the Nigerian man has claimed to have been acting on instructions from al-Qaida operatives in that country.
Nearly half of the 198 terror suspect detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are from Yemen. But Obama reiterated his vow to eventually close the camp.
“Make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo prison,” Obama said. The camp, he said, “was an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaida” operating in Yemen.
As for the Christmas attack, Obama said it exposed “a potentially disastrous” security failure.
He spoke after a White House meeting with the officials charged with carrying out two reviews he has ordered. Obama spelled out recent changes in security protocols for airline flights and changes to the government’s watchlist of suspected terrorists.
Obama told reporters the security lapse didn’t have to do with the collection of information but with the failure to integrate and analyze what was there. The bottom line, he said was that the government had “sufficient information to uncover this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack.”
“Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list,” he said. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already have.”
Obama said that it was clear the government knew that the suspect, Abdulmutallab, had traveled to Yemen and joined with extremists there.
“It now turns out that our intelligence community knew of other red flags that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike not only American targets in Yemen, but the United States itself. And we had information that this group was working with an individual … who we now know was in fact the individual involved in the Christmas attack,” he said.
The later White House statement said the leaders of each agency at the meeting took responsibility for failures at their respective organizations and there was no attempt at the kind of finger-pointing Obama said he would not tolerate.
Each agency “brought to the table steps they’ve already taken to improve their systems and make the American people safer,” some of which were mentioned by the president in his public remarks, the statement said.
Some of the tougher procedures Obama demanded have already been put in place.
The Transportation Security Administration directed airlines, beginning Monday, to give full-body, pat-down searches to U.S.-bound travelers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries.
Before Obama’s comments, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still has full confidence in his three top national security officials: Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
They were among the 20 high-level officials who sat down with Obama in the White House Situation Room for a meeting that lasted over 90 minutes.
Since the attempted attack, the government has added dozens of names to its lists of suspected terrorists and those barred from flights bound for the United States.
The additions came after U.S. officials scrutinized a larger database of suspected terrorists, an intelligence official said Monday.
People on the watch list are subject to additional scrutiny before they are allowed to enter this country, while anyone on the no-fly list is barred from boarding aircraft in or headed for the United States.
Abdulmutallab remained in federal custody, charged with trying to destroy the Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit. He is alleged to have smuggled an explosive device onboard and set if off. The device sparked only a fire and not the intended explosion.
Abdulmutallab’s name was in a huge U.S. database of about 550,000 terror suspects but was not on a list that would have subjected him to additional security screening or kept him from boarding the flight. That omission prompted a review of the National Counterterrorism Center’s massive Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database.
Associated Press writers Joan Lowy, Philip Elliott, Matthew Lee and Faryl Ury in Washington, and Ahmed Al-Haj in San’a, Yemen, contributed to this report.
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