Monday, January 4, 2010

Obama to outline counterterrorism reforms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday will outline an initial series of reforms aimed at helping to thwart future attacks like the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, an administration official said on Monday.

Barack Obama

The security reforms, which Obama will talk about in a statement after a meeting with intelligence chiefs and other security officials, will include improvement in the U.S. "watchlisting" system for suspected terrorists, the official said.

The changes follow criticism of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies, mostly from opposition Republicans, in the aftermath of the failed December 25 attack on a Detroit-bound plane. A Nigerian man has been charged with trying to blow up the flight from Amsterdam with explosives hidden in his underwear.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said instability in Yemen, where the bombing suspect has been linked to al Qaeda militants, posed a global threat and pledged to plug any holes in U.S. security procedures after the attack.

"With respect to what happened with the terrorist on the plane coming into Detroit, we are not satisfied," Clinton told reporters following a meeting with visiting Qatar Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.

U.S. spy agencies and the State Department had information about the suspect, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, before he allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight, but had failed to connect the dots and put him on a no-fly list.

White House officials have conceded the Christmas Day bomb plot exposed errors but have played down the need for a total overhaul of the U.S. security system just as the country enters the politically tricky 2010 congressional election season.

Republicans have accused Obama, who returned on Monday from a Hawaii vacation, and his Democratic administration of being weak on terrorism and unable to fix intelligence gaps that have lingered since the September 11, 2001, hijacked-plane attacks.


House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner said on Monday the Christmas plot raised new questions about the Obama administration's security strategy, including its plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer some inmates to U.S. facilities.

"All year long, Republicans have asked the question: what is this Administration's overarching strategy to confront the terrorist threat and keep America safe?," Boehner said in a statement.

Despite the focus on the failed December 25 plot, White House spokesman Bill Burton did not expect the issue to keep Obama from addressing jobs, healthcare and the rest of his agenda.

"When you're president of the United States you've got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time," Burton said.

Security -- such as new requirements for closer screening of airline passengers from 14 countries -- would continue to be beefed up as the review progressed, he told reporters aboard Air Force One.

"The president hasn't just waited for all the different pieces to come in before acting ... safety and security measures are moving forward even as the review goes on."

Two separate Senate committees on Monday announced hearings for January 20 to examine missteps that led to the failed attack, including improving capabilities to prevent such attacks and the effectiveness of passenger screening.


With the U.S. military facing a big increase in forces battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and burdened with continued responsibilities in Iraq, Yemen has proved an unwelcome new problem on the U.S. security radar.

U.S. authorities said the airline bomb attempt was carried out after Abdulmutallab forged links to al Qaeda while in the impoverished country, which sits at the tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen branch of Osama bin Laden's network, claimed responsibility for the attempt to blow up the plane, which was carrying almost 300 people.

Clinton said the U.S. Embassy in Yemen -- which closed on Sunday along with two other Western embassies due to unspecified al Qaeda threats -- would only reopen when security conditions permit.

Yemeni forces on Monday killed at least two al Qaeda militants it said were behind the threats, Yemeni security officials said.

Clinton said the situation in Yemen, where the United States supports a government offensive against Islamic militants amid a Shi'ite revolt in the north and separatist unrest in the south, was of global concern.

"Obviously, we see global implications from the war in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by al Qaeda in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region," Clinton told reporters.

She said a meeting on Yemen planned for later this month in London would give the international community a chance to assess both the threat in Yemen and the world's response.

Obama has asked for as much as $63 million in aid for Yemen in 2010 -- up from about $40 million in 2009, the State Department said. Yemen also received an additional $67 million in special funds earmarked to support its counterterrorism and border control efforts in 2009.

General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said last week the United States would more than double its security assistance program for Yemen. But the Pentagon on Monday cautioned that no decision had been made.

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