Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Obama under pressure to sack intelligence chiefs

Pressure was growing on President Barack Obama to shake up the US intelligence community with dismissals in the wake of not one but two humiliating and highly damaging debacles – the thwarted Christmas Day bombing and the slaughter in Afghanistan of seven CIA officers by an informant who was in fact a double agent.

Mr Obama's statement on Tuesday expressing his anger at the failure of the intelligence community to "connect the dots" to disrupt the Christmas airliner incident has yet to quell criticism of how it was mishandled. So far he has not sought any resignations, but some in Washington are casting their eyes toward the Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, who claimed immediately afterwards that security arrangements had "worked".

The damage caused by the suicide bombing at the CIA base in Afghanistan a week ago was still being assessed with reports emerging that the perpetrator, a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, had been seen by his US handlers as offering them the best chance they had had in years to properly infiltrate the top command in al-Qa'ida. His self-detonation showed how wrong they were.

The widow of al-Balawi was yesterday quoted in the Turkish media saying that her dead husband considered the US his adversary but that she was shocked when she heard he had blown himself up on 30 December. Speaking to CNN-Turk television, Defne Bayrak expressed doubt that he had worked for the CIA or the Jordanian intelligence service, which took the lead in allegedly "turning" him to work against the US.

The suicide attack highlighted how thin the straws appear to be for the CIA as it grasps for anything that may lead to the al-Qa'ida leadership. "This was one of the agency's most promising efforts", a senior intelligence officer told The New York Times in reference to the al-Balawi operation. "He had provided information that checked out, about people in al-Qa'ida."

The White House has promised to publish reviews of security procedures to protect air travellers before the end of this week. But some analysts believe that Mr Obama will have to set heads rolling. Representative Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, charged in a television interview: "There's a disconnect between intensity of [Obama's] rhetoric and what he proposes... If the situation is as bad as the President says it was... someone will have to go."

"The agencies that have failed security big-time are the Secret Service and TSA [Transport Security Agency]," Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican consultant, wrote yesterday. "The person in charge of both is Janet Napolitano. Fire her and convince us standing in long lines at airports is worth the price."

She received unexpected support last night from Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security chief for George Bush. "The problem doesn't lie with her... it lies with the intelligence fusion process and the people responsible for seizing on the threat information and making sure it was followed through."

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