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U.S. was more focused on al-Qaeda's plans abroad than for homeland, report on airline bomb plot finds
He also deflected potential criticism of NCTC Director Michael E. Leiter, who the New York Daily News reported Thursday had spent much of the post-Christmas crisis period away from Washington on a ski vacation. Leiter, who had scheduled a leave to spend time with his son, "asked me whether or not he should cancel. . . . I was the one who told him he should go," Brennan said, adding that they were "in constant contact with each other."
In a memo to department and agency heads outlining "corrective actions," Obama ordered Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair to "immediately reaffirm and clarify roles and responsibilities" of counterterrorism agencies "in synchronizing, correlating and analyzing all sources of intelligence related to terrorism."
In a letter sent to the intelligence community Thursday night, Blair acknowledged that "we had strategic intelligence that al-Qaeda in the Arab [sic] Peninsula had the intention of taking action against the United States." But, he wrote, we did not direct more resources against AQAP, nor insist that the watchlisting criteria be adjusted." Analysts "who were working hard on immediate threats to Americans in Yemen did not understand the fragments of intelligence on what turned out later to be Mr. Abdulmutallab."
The State Department, which failed to determine that Abdulmutallab had a valid U.S. entry visa after his father visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to express concern about his son's radicalization in Yemen, was ordered to strengthen its procedures for issuing and revoking visas, while the FBI was directed to review its watch-list procedures, especially the airline "no-fly" list.
The CIA, which had compiled a biographical study of Abdulmutallab after his father's embassy visit but never formally disseminated it across the intelligence community, was instructed to "issue guidance aimed at ensuring the timely distribution of intelligence reports."
CIA spokesman George Little said that the agency had "collected and shared information about Abdulmutallab with other agencies" but "had taken a close look at how we can do even more."
On Tuesday, Little said, CIA Director Leon Panetta had ordered the agency to formally disseminate information on terrorism suspects within 48 hours, expand name traces and review information on individuals from "countries of concern" to see whether it should recommend changes in their watch-list status and "increase the number of analysts focused on Yemen and Africa."
Obama's memo instructed the National Security Agency, whose electronic intercepts from Yemen last fall included references to an anti-U.S. plot and an unnamed Nigerian, to implement a training course to increase awareness among its analysts of the government's watch-listing procedures.
The NCTC, which was accused of devoting insufficient analytical firepower to AQAP threats against the U.S. homeland, was told to "establish and resource appropriately a process to prioritize and to pursue thoroughly and exhaustively terrorism threat threads."
Obama, Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who also spoke after the president's address, said Abdulmutallab is a challenging new type of al-Qaeda recruit. "It is clear that al-Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations not just in the Middle East but in Africa and other places to do their bidding," Obama said, adding that he had "directed my national security team to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits."
Congressional Republicans welcomed the public release of the White House report, but some said they are not convinced that the administration will take the steps needed to close gaps in intelligence and security. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, said the administration failed to respond aggressively to problems that were exposed in November's shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.
Hoekstra's counterpart on the Senate intelligence panel, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), said he was puzzled by Obama's contention that all the problems leading up to the failed Christmas attack had been identified. "Our committee is still waiting for the administration to provide basic answers to basic questions," he said. Several hearings on the incident and intelligence shortfalls have been scheduled for this month.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.