Obama sets Tuesday meeting on air bomber security failures

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 31, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama closed 2009 on a somber note, consoling the CIA over seven officers and contractors killed Wednesday in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber and receiving preliminary findings on intelligence failures that enabled a Nigerian with alleged Islamic extremist ties to board a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas Day with explosives in his underwear.

In a statement released Thursday from Hawaii, where the president has been vacationing with his family, Obama said he'd meet Tuesday in Washington with multiple agency heads to address the investigation and the next steps.

Obama said he'd spoken in the morning with his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, regarding "preliminary assessments" of what went wrong; and with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about enhanced detection and security measures that are being implemented.

"I anticipate receiving assessments from several agencies this evening and will review those tonight and over the course of the weekend," Obama said. He didn't share any substantive details.

In Washington, some federal agencies were moving to improve their procedures even before Obama reacted to early findings.

A senior U.S. official said the State Department intends to institute a change in which U.S. embassies that receive any information about a person of interest or concern and cable that information back to federal agencies in Washington, would now also automatically notify agencies of that person's visa status.

That didn't happen in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmtallab, who allegedly boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 carrying explosives.

Obama has aggressively sought to preserve his family vacation, even as he's juggled national security updates, televised statements and partisan criticism related to the Christmas Day incident.

After speaking with Brennan and Napolitano, the president headed off to the movies with his wife and daughters and some family friends for a special 3-D screening of "Avatar" in a Kaneohe mall theater they had all to themselves.

New Year's Eve marked the end of a dark decade for the nation, but offered no end to the unease that's plagued the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Obama has said that a mix of human and system failures led to poor communication, and that if the system had worked the way it was intended to, Abdulmutallab never would have been permitted to board Northwest Flight 253 for Detroit. Multiple reviews are now under way, and Congress is planning hearings.

Officials say disaster was averted a week ago because Abdulmutallab botched his attempt to ignite his explosives and because other passengers acted quickly — not because of U.S. intelligence or flight safety measures.

The suspect's father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria weeks earlier of his son's extremist connections in Yemen, and U.S. intelligence agencies may have known months earlier about a possible Nigerian threat but had never connected the dots.

As a result, Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa remained valid, and officials didn't add his name to a no-fly or enhanced airport screening list.

In Yemen, security officials said Thursday that Abdulmutallab had overstayed his visa by nearly three months at the time he left the country in early December, the Associated Press reported. A probe was looking into why airport and passport officials did not detain him given the discrepancies in his paperwork.

U.S. officials were looking for any links between Abdulmutallab, al Qaida and any other recent terrorist- or suspicious airplane-related incidents.

Separately, Obama on Thursday wrote in a message to the CIA that "the men and women who gave their lives in Afghanistan did their duty with courage, honor and excellence, and we must draw strength from the example of their sacrifice."

The president told CIA employees that their clandestine work is essential to helping the nation understand risks and protect Americans: "You have served in the shadows, and your sacrifices have sometimes been unknown to your fellow citizens, your friends, and even your families."

(Warren P. Strobel of the Washington Bureau contributed.)

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