Attempt to bomb airliner could have been prevented, Obama says

Citing the failed attempt to bring down a Northwest passenger jet, the president says that the "intelligence community failed to connect the dots" and lists some of the steps he ordered to strengthen national security.
By Karen DeYoung and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 7:42 AM

President Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies could have prevented the attempt to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day, and used a grim and forceful White House statement to demand rapid improvements in efforts to protect Americans from attack.

"This was not a failure to collect intelligence," Obama said after meeting with senior national security and intelligence officials, "it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. . . . That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it."

The administration has been criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for intelligence lapses that allowed Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly carrying undetected explosives, to board the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight despite reports that he had met with al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists in Yemen known to be planning to attack the United States.

"Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots," the president said, using words that were far sharper than his previous comments on the incident. "We have to do better, and we will do better, and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line."

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday that it had arrested three alleged al-Qaeda operatives believed to be linked to a plot against the American embassy in Sanaa, the capital, wire services reported. The arrests were part of a U.S.-backed crackdown on militants on Tuesday in which two alleged al-Qaeda fighters were killed.

Obama, speaking Tuesday on his first full day back at the White House after an 11-day Hawaiian vacation, conveyed a controlled anger about what he had heard in preliminary reviews of what went wrong.

A White House official quoted Obama using even more blunt language in the Situation Room meeting. "This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet, but just barely," he reportedly said. Although Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate the explosive as the plane started its descent into Detroit with nearly 300 people aboard, it did not ignite because of "technical difficulties," according to a statement by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claiming responsibility for the plot.

Obama also warned the 20 officials gathered at the meeting that he would "not tolerate" the finger-pointing that has emerged among some of their agencies, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. No such blame-shifting was reported during the meeting, and officials were said to accept responsibility for their respective failures.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said the president's message had been received. "We got it. . . . The system did not catch Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and prevent him from boarding an airliner and entering the United States. We must be able to stop such attempts."

Blair, whom some Republicans have said should be fired, said intelligence agencies "need to strengthen our ability to stop new tactics such as the efforts of individual suicide terrorists."

In his public statement, at a lectern set up in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Obama listed steps that have been taken, including expansion of the U.S. "no-fly" list to include people with Abdulmutallab's profile; enhanced screening for anyone flying to the United States from an expanded list of "countries of interest"; additional screening and security on all domestic or U.S.-bound international flights; and an automatic check of terrorism suspects to determine whether they possess valid U.S. visas.

"In the days ahead," Obama said, "I will announce further steps to disrupt attacks, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel." A summary of the ongoing review of the terrorist watch-listing system that did not identify Abdulmutallab, he said, will be made public "within the next few days."

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