Obama: Feds knew more about terror suspect, but didn't act

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials had had more warnings about the alleged Christmas airplane attacker, including reports that al Qaida was working with him and the group was planning attacks on American targets in Yemen and the United States.

"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," Obama said at the White House.

"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," he said.

"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."

U.S. officials familiar with details of the case, however, said they were unaware of the additional red flags to which the president referred.

"There is nothing that I can add to the information that is in the public" domain, said one of the officials, all of whom asked to remain anonymous because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Obama spoke after he met with his top security advisers, pressing for answers about how the government failed to heed warning signs and allowed 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a Detroit-bound plane, allegedly with explosives in his underwear.

Obama and his aides worked to assure the American public that it's safe and to quell criticism from Republicans over the administration's handling of the case.

"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."

He said his top aides and Cabinet officers took responsibility for failures in their agencies or departments.

The president was more direct in his meeting with top aides.

"This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous," he told them, according to the White House. "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."

Obama promised to announce new measures within days to ward off attacks, including policies to connect the dots of disparate intelligence and to screen airline passengers better. He noted that the Department of Homeland Security is working with the Department of Energy to use the best technology available, presumably to find the kinds of explosives that went undetected on Christmas.

Those measures will come atop others already undertaken. They include:

  • The State Department will include up-to-date visa information, which can signal travel plans, in its warnings about people with terrorist connections.
  • The Transportation Security Administration has enhanced screening of passengers who are flying to the United States from 14 countries.
  • More suspects have been added to the list of people who aren't permitted to board plans.

Obama said the lapses wouldn't change his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that he wouldn't release any more detainees to Yemen for the foreseeable future.

Nearly half the remaining detainees at Guantanamo are from Yemen, where a branch of al Qaida reportedly has taken root. The United States closed its embassy there temporarily after learning of a possible attack, but is reopening it.

The Yemeni government has said that Abdulmutallab was in the country from August to December on a student visa before embarking on his flight to the U.S.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the FBI had gotten valuable intelligence from Abdulmutallab.

"Abdulmutallab spent a number of hours with FBI investigators in which we gleaned useable, actionable intelligence," Gibbs said.

Gibbs was responding to critics such as Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who continued to pound the Obama administration over the handling of the case. He and other Republicans complained that the decision to charge Abdulmutallab rather than turn him over to the military as an "enemy combatant" gave him more legal protection against interrogation and made it less likely that he'd talk.

Gibbs noted that the Bush administration also charged terrorism suspects with crimes, including would-be airliner shoe bomber Richard Reid, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Jose Padilla.

Two of those were charged immediately in criminal cases. Padilla, however, originally was named as an enemy combatant and held for more than three years before he was convicted in criminal court on terror-related charges.

(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)

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