U.S. was more focused on al-Qaeda's plans abroad than for homeland, report on airline bomb plot finds

By Karen DeYoung and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

By concentrating on the strategic threat posed by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen and its plans for attacking U.S. targets there, U.S. intelligence agencies failed to focus on the group's preparations for a direct strike in this country, a White House review of the Dec. 25 attempted airline bombing has concluded.

That lapse, along with insufficient attention to separate warnings that a specific person -- Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- may have been recruited by extremists in Yemen, led to a breakdown in systems designed to "connect the dots" about an imminent threat to the homeland, President Obama said Thursday in announcing the findings.

"The U.S. government had the information . . . to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack," he said. "Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had."

In addition to changes in airline watch lists and improved airport screening, which could have detected the explosives Abdulmutallab was allegedly carrying, Obama directed that the intelligence community ensure that every threat is fully analyzed and aggressively followed, "not just most of the time but all of the time."

He also ordered more rapid and widespread distribution of all intelligence reports, "especially those involving potential threats to the United States," and improvements in the way analysts process "vast universes of intelligence."

Assigning responsibility to top intelligence and homeland security officials for establishing accountability within their agencies, Obama said he is "less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes."

"Ultimately," he said, "the buck stops with me . . . and when the system fails, it is my responsibility."

But the six-page report released by the White House, a declassified version of the investigation compiled by counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan over the past two weeks, singled out the National Counterterrorism Center and the CIA. Although each had the responsibility and ability to do so, the report said, each failed to apply to Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) "the full range of analytic tools and expertise that [they use] in tracking other plots aimed at the U.S. homeland."

The NCTC was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to analyze terrorism-related intelligence from across the government, while the CIA retains additional responsibility for counterterrorism analysis. "The intentional redundancy in the system should have added an additional layer of protection in uncovering a plot like the failed attack on December 25," the report said.

In addition to the failure of those agencies to link information relating to the operation, it said, "analytic focus during December was on the imminent AQAP attacks on Americans and American interests in Yemen, and on supporting CT [counterterrorism] efforts in Yemen."

"All of their activities we were focused on were happening in Yemen," Brennan said in a White House briefing after Obama spoke. "There was a drumbeat of intelligence on trying to get individuals to carry out attacks. . . . In hindsight, we saw the plot developing, but at the time we did not know they were talking about sending Mr. Abdulmutallab to the United States."

Brennan, a former senior CIA official, praised the intelligence community for "an outstanding and stellar job in protecting this homeland." But "it was in this one instance that we did not rise to that same level of competence and success." He said he had told Obama on Thursday that "I let him down. . . . I told him I will do better and we will do better as a team."

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