Mutallab intelligence flaws: ‘buck stops with me’ says Obama
By Stephen Collinson.
Washington, Thu Jan 7, 2010 (AFP) – President Barack Obama has declared “the buck stops with me” over major intelligence flaws exposed by an Al-Qaeda attack on a US passenger jet and ordered a sweeping homeland security overhaul.
Releasing two reports on the thwarted Christmas Day bombing, Obama said spy agencies did not properly “connect and understand” disparate data that could have busted the plot as it was planned by an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
He said the probes revealed that US analysts knew alleged attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was an extremist and knew Al-Qaeda in Yemen was plotting an attack — but could not connect the two strands of intelligence.
And as critics charge his administration is too soft on terror and slow to act after the attack, Obama said the United States is “at war with Al-Qaeda” but promised terrorists would not force Americans to adopt a “siege” mentality.
“I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer,” Obama said, signaling there would be no immediate firings of top spy chiefs over the security breakdown.
“Ultimately the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility.”
Obama’s top anti-terror official John Brennan, however, delivered a personal mea culpa.
“I told the president today, I let him down… I told him that I will do better.”
Obama said the plot was “not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies.”
He said the US homeland security system and intelligence community broke down in three ways, allowing Abdulmutallab to board a Northwest jet from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear.
He blamed US spies for not “aggressively” chasing down the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) group that planned the attack, then did not properly analyze intelligence.
Then, the intelligence that was known was not properly filtered through the US terror watch list system — allowing Abdulmutallab onto the plane.
To remedy the failures, Obama directed that specific individuals or teams must be assigned to follow up on intelligence leads to ensure accountability and close attention to suspected threats. Related article: Obama orders ‘immediate’ steps after security failure
Intelligence reports must be shared among the clandestine community more quickly and better analyzed, and improvements will be made to watch listing procedures, he said.
Though warning there were no “silver bullets,” Obama also vowed “significant investments” in aviation security.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised a new and “layered” approach, and called on foreign nations to do their part to safeguard their own citizens as well as US security.
“There were passengers from 17 countries aboard Flight 253. This is an international issue, not just one about the United States,” she said, promising to initiate global negotiations to improve security standards.
Napolitano promised to speed up the deployment of 300 body imaging machines at airports and raised the possibility of more and said the government would aggressively seek to develop new detection technology.
There will also be an overhaul of terrorist watch lists, more canine security teams at airports, and more uniformed and undercover detection officers, including more federal air marshalls on planes. Related article: Vast US spy machine comes under fresh scrutiny
Obama has faced a barrage of criticism since the Christmas Day attack — including from Republicans who say he still does not understand the nature of the terrorist threat facing the United States.
But in his speech, he attempted to stamp out such claims.
“We are at war,” Obama said.
“We are at war against Al-Qaeda, 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.
“We will do whatever it takes to defeat them.”
The Central Intelligence Agency said it plans to increase the number of analysts looking at Yemen and Africa, with Director Leon Panetta also ordering the agency to “formally” distribute information on possible terrorists within 48 hours and to expand records on those suspects.
Panetta instructed the CIA to review information on individuals in “countries of concern” and to recommend if their status on terror watchlists should be changed, spokesman George Little said in a statement to AFP.
Some Republicans were not satisfied, however.
“I worry that the president?s preoccupation with health care and other domestic issues has distracted him from… keeping our nation and its citizenry safe from harm,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn. Related article: US ‘plane bomber’ met radical cleric Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele added: “Too often President Obama and Democrats disregard the fact that terrorists are at war with us, which is dangerous thinking in this post-9/11 era.”