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Obama vows to repair intelligence gaps behind Detroit airplane incident

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Speaking from Hawaii, the president addresses the 'systemic failure' that allowed a Nigerian man onto Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with plastic explosive that he allegedly carried in undergarments and tried to ignite.

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By Carrie Johnson, Karen DeYoung and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

President Obama said Tuesday that a "mix of human and systemic failures" allowed a Nigerian student allegedly carrying explosives to board an airplane en route to Detroit on Christmas Day, and he vowed to quickly fix flaws that could have doomed a flight carrying nearly 300 passengers and crew members.

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The president and his top advisers now believe there is "some linkage" with al-Qaeda, and the administration is "increasingly confident" that the terrorist group worked with suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to secure the deadly chemical mixture that he took aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

White House officials also said the government had intelligence suggesting a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaeda around Christmas, although the reports were not specific.

Obama's stark remarks came two days after his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said information provided by the suspect's father before the failed bombing plot was so vague that it did not merit further investigation. Napolitano also said that "the system worked" in this incident, drawing a political outcry from Republican lawmakers and national security experts.

As the Obama administration reviewed the government's actions, investigators in Yemen on Tuesday visited an Arabic language institute attended by Abdulmutallab and asked about his ties to a mosque in the capital's historic section.

In the United States, FBI agents conducted fresh interviews of each passenger on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight and focused on Abdulmutallab's past six months, when investigators suspect that he grew increasingly radicalized, according to two federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to interfere with the investigation.

Over the past year, Abdulmutallab intensified electronic communications with the extremist Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, the federal sources said. Aulaqi also corresponded with the Army major accused in last month's Fort Hood, Tex., massacre, officials have said.

From his vacation spot in Hawaii, the president blamed lapses in information-sharing after Abdulmutallab's father alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria last month about his son, who had embraced radical views and cut off ties with his prosperous family. Government officials said they already have identified faulty systems and failures to follow procedure, and Obama has demanded preliminary results of a review by Thursday.

"It now appears that, weeks ago, this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list," Obama said. ". . . Had this critical information been shared . . . the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."

He added: "A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable."

'Bits of information'

Intelligence officials said they are eager to close whatever gaps the Abdulmutallab case may have exposed. But several took issue with Obama's reference to "bits of information available within the intelligence community," saying that what might appear clear in retrospect was far from conclusive at the time.

"Abdulmutallab's father didn't say his son was a terrorist" when he visited the U.S. Embassy, "let alone [that he was] planning an attack. Not at all," one U.S. intelligence official said. "I'm not aware of some magic piece of intelligence that suddenly would have flagged this guy -- whose name nobody even had until November -- as a killer en route to America, let alone something that anybody withheld."


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