Obama administration says there was no smoking gun before attempted airline bombing

"Our government failed to connect the dots," President Obama acknowledged in discussing the attempted airliner attack. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 8, 2010

"There was no smoking gun," John Brennan, the White House homeland security adviser, said after the attempted airplane bombing.

No? Perhaps he was expecting Gilbert Arenas to walk into the situation room and hand him one?

"The system worked," was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's original take on the would-be underwear bomber.

But, as we now know, the only system that worked to prevent a plane from blowing up over Detroit on Christmas Day was the system of luck.

President Obama on Thursday buried his advisers' cheerful accounts as he detailed "how our government failed to connect the dots in a way that would have prevented a known terrorist from boarding a plane for America."

There turned out to be more red flags than Peter Orszag has lady friends: paying cash for the ticket, flying to Detroit in December without luggage, a warning from the suspect's own father, knowledge of a plot being hatched in Yemen, and information about explosives being hidden in underwear. The president judged that "the U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack."

When Obama finished his account, it was time for Smoking Gun Brennan and System Worked Napolitano to face the music -- in the form of reporters' questions in the White House briefing room.

"I told the president today I let him down," Brennan said in a preemptive opening statement. "I am the president's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, and I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team."

Brennan was not done with contrition and regret. "This was a systemic failure across agencies and across organizations," he went on. "It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we have." He still wasn't done. "The intelligence fell through the cracks," he said. "This happened in more than one organization. This contributed to the larger failure."

It was Napolitano's turn. "As John has indicated, we simply had a systemic failure," she said. She explained ways in which the government is "moving quickly to address concerns revealed by the attempted attack."

The confessions evidently satisfied the reporters, for they didn't press the pair on their initial statements about guns and systems. But there was a problem with the first change Obama recommended: "I'm directing that our intelligence community immediately begin assigning specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively, not just most of the time but all of the time."

Um, you mean we weren't doing that already?

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