WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Thursday declined to fire anyone for the lapses that allowed a suspected terrorist carrying explosives to board a plane for Detroit on Christmas Day, and said for the first time that he bears the ultimate responsibility for any breach that endangers Americans.
"I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer, for ultimately the buck stops with me," Obama said. "As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility."
The president said he'd ordered steps to guard against a repeat, including making sure that some agency is responsible for investigating all high priority threats, directing that intelligence reports be distributed more quickly and to more people, strengthening analysis of raw intelligence reports and making it easier to add individuals to terrorist watch and no-fly lists.
Obama had a new tone Thursday, taking responsibility himself and adding his White House staff to the list of government offices and agencies that failed to stop 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253 despite numerous warning signs.
In earlier statements, first from Hawaii and this week from the White House, Obama didn't mention his own responsibility, and on Tuesday he called the failures by intelligence agencies a massive screwup.
Obama spoke as the White House released a redacted summary of its internal review of the lapses that allowed Abdulmutallab onto the plane even though his father had told U.S. officials he was involved with Islamic militants, he'd bought a one-way ticket with cash and he had no luggage.
Abdulmutallab has been charged in a federal indictment with trying to blow up the plane and has told investigators that he was working with the al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula terror network.
In an apparent effort to answer criticism that he's treated the Christmas Day attempt and other threats as a criminal problem rather than a national security threat, Obama said again that the United States is at war with the al Qaida terrorist network and its branches.
"We are at war. We are at war against al Qaida, 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," he said. "And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them."
At the same time, a White House report referred to Abdulmutallab as "the individual terrorist," and Obama stressed the threat of lone Muslims such as Abdulmutallab being drawn to al Qaida.
"That's why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaida 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.
Although Obama aides had said the report on the Christmas attack would shock the country, it contained few new details. Its release was delayed twice Thursday as officials scrubbed it to make sure it didn't report anything that would reveal sources of intelligence.
Obama said mistakes in three areas piled up from mid-October through late December and allowed Abdulmutallab to board the plane, allegedly with explosives.
First, he said, U.S. intelligence officials "did not aggressively follow up on and prioritize" reports that Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was planning an attack on the United States and recruiting people to carry it out.
"The White House and the National Security Staff failed to identify this gap ahead of time," the White House report said. "No single component of the CT (counterterrorism) community assumed responsibility for the threat reporting and followed it through."
Second, he said, the intelligence community "failed to connect the dots" that could have revealed that Abdulmutallab was planning the attack. Abdulmutallab's father told U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria on Nov. 18 that his son may have been radicalized and was planning to go to Yemen.
While information was "fragmentary and embedded in a large volume of other data," the White House report concluded, several U.S. agencies obtained reports about al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, its plans and Abdulmutallab over several months.
"The U.S. government had sufficient information prior to the attempted Dec. 25 attack to have potentially disrupted the AQAP plot, by identifying Mr. Abdulmutallab as a likely operative of AQAP and potentially preventing him from boarding flight 253," the report said.
"We saw the plot was developing. But at the time, we did not know, in fact, that they were talking about sending Mr. Abdulmutallab to the United States," said John Brennan, Obama's chief counter terrorism adviser.
Third, Obama said, "shortcomings" in the system failed to move Abdulmutallab's name from a broad list of suspected threats to a narrower "no fly" list that would have kept him off any U.S.-bound plane.
One problem: the fact that Abdulmutallab had a visa to enter the United States was never matched to the reports that he might have become a dangerous radical. At first, a misspelling of his name led the State Department to think he didn't have a valid visa. Yet even if State had known of the visa, it would only have revoked it — and barred him from entry to the U.S. — if counterterrorism officials had connected all the information about him and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Obama also said the government will use new technology at airports, including full body scanners, but he insisted that the U.S. won't turn its airports into war zones that would make flying untenable.
"We will not succumb to siege mentality," he said.
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