By: Ben Feller
WASHINGTON— President Barack Obama scolded 20 of his highest-level officials last Tuesday over the botched Christmas Day terror attack on an airliner bound for Detroit, taking them jointly to task for “a screw-up that could have been disastrous” and should have been avoided.
After that 90-minute private reckoning around a table in the super-secure White House Situation Room, a grim-faced Obama informed Americans that the government had enough information to thwart the attack ahead of time but that the intelligence community, though trained to do so, did not “connect those dots.”
“That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it,” he said, standing solo to address the issue publicly for the fifth time — and the first in Washington — since the Dec. 25 incident.
Afterward, the White House released quotes from the Situation Room session. Disclosing Obama’s words during a private meeting is normally strictly off-limits for this White House and most others before it.
Obama did not say who, if anyone, in the government might be held accountable. Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still has full confidence in his three top national security officials: the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — all of whom were among those around the table with Obama later.
For now, administration officials say that Obama believes blame is shared enough that no one agency or official appears clearly enough at fault to be fired. However, as the president and his team continue to identify what the security gaps were and how to fill them, Obama could determine that someone needs to go, said one senior administration official familiar with Obama’s thinking. The official spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.
It was not clear how long that process of both accountability and policy changes might take, though Obama stressed urgency and speed in his public remarks. “We will do better, and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line,” he said.
A White House official said that Obama warned his lieutenants against looking for blame and that none of this sort of finger-pointing took place in the meeting, where the leaders of each agency took responsibility for failures within their respective organizations. “While there will be a tendency for finger-pointing, I will not tolerate it,” the official said Obama lectured them.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect who allegedly tried to set off an explosive device aboard the plane as it came in for a landing in Detroit, has told U.S. investigators he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. His father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had drifted into extremism in the al-Qaida hotbed of Yemen, but that threat was never fully digested by the U.S. security apparatus.
He is accused to trying to ignite the explosives he brought on board the flight carrying nearly 300 people — thwarted only by a malfunction with the explosives and the quick action of fellow passengers and crew once his efforts resulted in a fire.
“We dodged a bullet but just barely,” Obama told his team. “It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable.”
To Americans, Obama detailed even more red flags available in advance than had already been acknowledged: that an al-Qaida affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula planned to strike not only American targets in Yemen but the United States itself, and that it was working with Abdulmutallab to do so.
“The information was there,” Obama said, blistering agencies and analysts for not figuring out the threat — but without singling any out by name.
“When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way,” he said.
The director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, said in a statement that the intelligence community had received the president’s message. “We got it, and we are moving forward to meet the new challenges,” Blair said.
Obama announced no new steps to improve the intelligence or security systems. But he promised they would be coming, signaling more changes for airport travelers and in the sharing of intelligence. And he made a point to recount every step his administration has taken since the Dec. 25 incident.
Since the attack, the government has added dozens of names to its lists of suspected terrorists and those barred from flights bound for the United States. People on the watch list are subject to additional scrutiny before they are allowed to enter this country, while anyone on the no-fly list is barred from boarding aircraft in or headed for the United States.
And the Transportation Security Administration directed airlines, beginning Monday, to give full-body, pat-down searches to U.S.-bound travelers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries. One of those countries, Cuba, summoned the top U.S. diplomat on the island on Tuesday to protest extra screening for Cuban citizens flying into the United States, calling the new step “this hostile action.”
Tight security — and perhaps nerves — was showing up far from the White House.
A Bakersfield, Calif., airport was temporarily shut down last Tuesday after officials said a passenger’s luggage tested positive for TNT. The suspicious material turned out to five bottles filled with honey.
Obama also is suspending the transfer of Guantanamo prison detainees to Yemen. Nearly half of the 198 terror suspect detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are from that country. But Obama reiterated his vow to eventually close the camp.
“Make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo prison,” Obama said. The camp, he said, “was an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaida” operating in Yemen.
In his late-afternoon remarks to the nation, Obama told reporters the security lapse didn’t have to do with the collection of information but with the failure to “bring it all together.” The bottom line, he said: “The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot.”
Obama said that it was clear the government knew that the suspect, Abdulmutallab, had traveled to Yemen and joined with extremists there.
Abdulmutallab remains in federal custody, charged with trying to destroy the Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit. He is alleged to have smuggled an explosive device onboard and set if off. The device sparked only a fire and not the intended explosion.
Abdulmutallab’s name was in a huge U.S. database of about 550,000 terror suspects but was not on a list that would have subjected him to additional security screening or kept him from boarding the flight. That omission prompted a review of the National Counterterrorism Center’s massive Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database. His U.S. visa also remained intact despite his father’s warnings. And airport screening failed to detect the bomb-making material he brought on board with him.