Obama: Intelligence community mishandled air bomber clues

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday blamed "systemic failure" in the nation's national security and anti-terror system for allowing a Nigerian man to board a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives, even after his father had warned the government of his extremist views.

Obama said that based on preliminary information of what happened, "It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list."

Intelligence officials said that the information they'd received from his father at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria was shared throughout the U.S. intelligence community and that officials agreed there was not enough information to place Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab on a no-fly list.

That decision was made by the National Counterterrorism Center, one official said, noting that the NCTC is organized under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and staffed by representatives of at least 16 agencies and departments.

"And nobody disputed the listing," the official said.

The official's account was corroborated by a second official. Both agreed to discuss the events only under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The officials said Abdulmutallab's father shared his son's name and passport number with U.S. officials and said that his son might have connections to extremists in Yemen.

"Does that speak to an impending terrorist attack? Nope," the first official said. "NCTC was created to connect the dots on terrorism. If somebody thinks that could have been done better in this case, they know where to go for answers. I'm not aware of a magic piece of intelligence — somehow withheld — that would have put Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list."

The CIA acknowledged Tuesday it had known about Abdulmutallab by name since November.

Agency spokesman Paul Gimigliano didn't address any specifics about interviews or prior intelligence other than to say in a prepared statement that "we did not have his name before then."

"This agency, like others in our government, is reviewing all data to which it had access — not just what we ourselves may have collected — to determine if more could have been done to stop Abdulmutallab."

Obama, however, said there was little doubt that Abdulmutallab should not have been permitted to board the Northwest flight he is alleged to have tried to blow up on Christmas Day.

"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred," he said. "And I consider that totally unacceptable."

In his second straight day of remarks from Hawaii, where his family is vacationing, Obama sought to put to rest early criticism that he wasn't responding forcefully enough or that he and top administration officials were trying to gloss over what could have been a catastrophic event had the explosive not failed and passengers not intervened.

Obama reiterated that thorough reviews of the government's human and systemic errors are under way.

Had the system worked, Obama said, "a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."

"We've achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks, but it's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have."

A senior administration official, briefing reporters in Hawaii under the condition of anonymity, said Obama's remarks came shortly after receiving a conference call update on the investigation from National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, John Brennan, Obama's counter terrorism adviser, and Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

"It now is clear to us that there are bits and pieces of information that were in the possession of the U.S. government in advance of the Christmas Day attack . . . that had they been assessed and correlated could have . . . allowed us to disrupt the attack," the senior official said.

The official said the information the government had related to "where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some plans of al Qaeda were."

"If this all were correlated in a way that allowed us to get a bigger and brighter picture . . . I think it would have been a different outcome," the official said.

The official also said that "some of the new information that we've developed overnight does suggest that there was some linkage there" between Abdulmutallab and al Qaida, but that "I'm never going to verify anything al Qaeda says and I'm not in a position to suggest that we know conclusively that they were for it, that they planned it."

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, who were unable to get the president's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration confirmed before they recessed for winter break, were pledging to act quickly upon their return in three weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would file a cloture motion to limit debate and move to a roll-call vote on the nomination of Erroll Southers, a California airport police official and former FBI special agent.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. had held up Southers' confirmation earlier this month when Democrats sought to approve him by consent. The cloture process can take several days if those opposing a nominee choose to engage in lengthy debate. Southers has cleared two Senate committees with bipartisan support, but DeMint objected to what he believes are Democrats' plans to unionize the TSA.

DeMint said Tuesday that Reid had "completely ignored this nominee for weeks until the recent terror attempt" and was now grandstanding. DeMint also indicated he was open to a compromise to limit debate.

"I'm only looking for some time to debate the issue and have a vote so this isn't done in secret," DeMint said in a statement. He added that he hoped the debate and the alleged terrorism attempt "will convince Reid and President Obama that we cannot give union bosses veto power over national security at our airports."

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said DeMint was being "petty and vindictive" and that "he can't have his cake and eat it, too. The fact is he objected to us confirming this nominee. The one who's grandstanding is Sen. DeMint."

Southers is the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence. He also is the associate director of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, and he served as a deputy director of homeland security for California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Two Senate committees cleared Southers with bipartisan support. An acting administrator is in place pending his confirmation.

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