In addressing airline bomb plot, Obama says he's working fast to fix intelligence failures

By Scott Wilson
Friday, January 8, 2010; A07

In a short, stern address, President Obama sought Thursday to assure the nation that he is moving swiftly to correct the intelligence failures that allowed a man allegedly carrying explosives to board a commercial airliner on Christmas Day. But he also warned that threats posed by "a nimble adversary" will require more time and money to eliminate.

Obama used the word "immediate" half a dozen times in a roughly 12-minute speech made in the White House's State Dining Room -- at one point, twice in the same sentence -- to convey a sense of urgency that critics say he lacked in the days after the attempted bombing.

He also spoke sharply for the second time in as many days about the "systemic failures" that allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian, whose father had warned U.S. authorities about his son's radical interpretation of Islam, to board a Detroit-bound airliner in Amsterdam, allegedly with explosives under his clothes. The president said he was less interested in "passing out blame" than in correcting mistakes, and he made clear that senior intelligence officials will be overseeing the reforms rather than looking for new jobs.

But Obama, more than in his previous remarks about the incident, also held himself accountable as the nation's commander in chief for the near catastrophe that unfolded during his Christmas vacation, saying: "Ultimately, the buck stops with me." The set of technical reforms designed to better track terrorism suspects and enhance airline security that he outlined at the start of his speech gave way to a stark reminder that "we are at war."

"Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans," Obama said. "Because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want."

Obama has struggled to strike the right tone about the failed attack, initially waiting three days to address the incident publicly. His advisers said the delay was in part designed to deprive al-Qaeda of the public relations benefit that would come with an alarmed presidential reaction. But his critics, most of them from the political opposition, called it a sign that Obama is not sufficiently engaged in the fight against al-Qaeda.

Since then, Obama has ratcheted up his public concern about the incident, which has shaken the country's faith in the security reforms implemented since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This week, he appeared to restrain his anger after hearing the results of a preliminary review of the failures that allowed the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

The White House released photos of that Situation Room session, depicting a broad conference table surrounded by some of the more than 20 officials involved in the review. The image was designed to send the signal that the president had mobilized the national security apparatus against the threat, but in the sheer number of officials and agencies involved, it also highlighted how complicated that bureaucracy has become since the Sept. 11, attacks.

As he works to convince the public that reparations were underway to the intelligence analysis procedures, Obama acknowledged Thursday that "even the best intelligence can't identify in advance every individual who would do us harm."

"There is no silver bullet to securing the thousands of flights into America each day," he said, adding that reforms "will require significant investments." The remarks were a real-world nod to the security risks posed by low-tech terrorism -- in this case explosives allegedly hidden in the suspect's underwear -- and the political peril such incidents present to his presidency.

"He has to do everything possible to show that he is as humanly in command of the situation as possible," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "In other words, you work as hard as you can to make the system as good as you can and yet one foul-up has the sort of power to trump everything else."

Hess said he does not think that fallout from the attempted bombing would interfere with Obama's agenda. But he said the incident, as well as the president's efforts to address it, are a reminder of how potent the threat of terrorism remains as a political issue, even though the public often appears to forget it exists until something happens.

"It may very well be that he realizes the fragility of this system," Hess said. "It's something that this president and others have tried to respond to in a bureaucratic sense and a technological sense. And yet here we are."

As he often does in addressing the "global war on terror," a George W. Bush-era phrase that his administration has shunned, Obama sought to accurately identify the enemy and underscore the central role he believes American values should play in confronting radical Islam.

Obama has argued that the term "global war on terror" overestimates al-Qaeda's strength, and he made clear, as he did in his address to the Islamic world last year in Cairo, that Abdulmutallab is among a small minority of Muslims who resort to violence.

But he also acknowledged the enduring threat from al-Qaeda in expansive terms, calling it "a far-reaching network of violence."

"We will do whatever it takes to defeat them," he said. "And we've made progress."

In closing, Obama spoke to an audience closer to home: his political rivals, who have seized on the airline incident as a sign of his weakness. He said: "Now is not a time for partisanship, it's a time for citizenship."

He added: "That's what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism."

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