Tuesday, January 5, 2010
'Failed' intelligence in plane threat 'potentially disastrous': Obama
WASHINGTON — The United States government had more than enough information about failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to disrupt his Christmas Day airline bomb plot over Detroit but "failed in a potentially disastrous way" to connect the dots, President Barack Obama revealed Tuesday.
New information produced during his administration's ongoing review of the incident shows American intelligence agencies overlooked several "red flags" showing al-Qaida was planning an attack on the U.S. homeland and was working directly with Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who underwent terrorist training in Yemen, Obama said.
"This was not a failure to collect intelligence — it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had," Obama told reporters following his first face-to-face meeting with national security advisers since the thwarted attack.
"The information was there. Agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it, and our professionals were trained to look for it and to bring it all together . . . It is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged."
Obama's administration has been under heavy criticism since, in the immediate wake of the bombing attempt, it was revealed Abdulmutallab was not placed on a U.S. no-fly list despite several indications he posed a security threat.
The Nigerian was subdued by passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, headed from Amsterdam to Detroit, as he tried to ignite explosive components hidden in his underwear.
Obama did not provide details about the new information he'd been provided about Abdulmutallab's file or single out a particular intelligence agency for shoddy work.
But it's already known that Abdulmutallab's father had warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria about his son in November and that British intelligence had also alerted the Americans about his extremist views.
The oversight that kept Abdulmutallab off the U.S. no-fly lists are "not acceptable and I will not tolerate it," said Obama.
"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's comments amounted to an outright rebuke of an intelligence system that was supposed to have undergone a complete overhaul following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As recently as Sunday, White House National Security Adviser John Brennan said there was "no smoking gun" linking Abdulmutallab to an imminent attack.
The U.S. president said he has ordered his administration's internal review completed this week with recommendations for "corrective actions" that would be immediately implemented.
Obama insisted the existing U.S. terror watch list system was not broken but needed to be strengthened. The U.S. State Department will now require its foreign embassies to include current visa information in their warning on persons with suspected terrorist ties. Abdulmutallab was travelling on a valid visa.
Obama has faced sharp criticism from Republicans and some security analysts for his administration's handling of the foiled attack. Apart from the myriad intelligence failures, there have been concerns raised about the decision to charge Abdulmutallab under U.S. criminal law rather than turn him over to the military as an enemy combatant.
Seeking to blunt that criticism, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday that Abdulmutallab had already provided investigators with "usable, actionable intelligence" during interviews with law enforcement agents following his detention.
"FBI investigators believe they got useful information from this terrorist," Gibbs said.
Obama also rejected Republican calls for him to scrap plans to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where about 90 Yemenis remain in detention.
The prison's existence has been cited as "an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," Obama said, and it will be closed "in a manner that keeps the American people safe and secure".
The president, however, said he was ordering an immediate halt to the planned release of several dozen Yemenis from Guantanamo, citing the growing threat posed in the country by al-Qaida.
"With respect to Yemen in particular, there's an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time," Obama said. "Given the unsettled situation . . . we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time."