WASHINGTON - The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner was a potentially disastrous screw up by the intelligence community, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday as he vowed urgent action to tighten air security.
Sharpening his tone as he sought to limit political fallout over the intelligence breakdown, Obama said spy agencies had enough information to uncover the December 25 plot to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam but failed to connect those dots.
On Obama's first full day back from his Hawaii vacation, he faced the challenge of spotlighting national security -- suddenly pushed to the top of his agenda -- while not looking distracted from other pressing public concerns like reducing double-digit U.S. unemployment.
We have to do better and we will do better. And we will do it quickly, Obama said after a two-hour meeting with his national security team to discuss what he has called human and systemic failures in the Christmas Day incident.
Obama used his sharpest language behind closed doors, telling more than two dozen security chiefs gathered in the Situation Room, This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous, according to the White House.
We dodged a bullet but just barely, the White House quoted him as telling the security chiefs. It was averted by brave individuals not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable.
Passengers and crew subdued the Nigerian bomb suspect as he tried to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear.
Nicknamed No Drama Obama for his normally unflappable style, Obama was on the defensive after security lapses allowed the Nigerian man with alleged links to Yemen-based al Qaeda operatives to board the Northwest Airlines flight.
U.S. spy agencies and the State Department had information about the man, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab but never collated the information to put him on a no-fly list.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said the intelligence community received the president's message today -- we got it and we are moving forward to meet the new challenges.
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 said in a statement. The threat has evolved and we need to anticipate new kinds of attacks and improve our ability to stay ahead of them and protect America.
Obama, who returned on Monday from 11 days in Hawaii, has been lambasted by Republicans who accuse his Democratic administration of being weak on terrorism and unable to fix intelligence gaps that have lingered since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States involving hijacked planes.
Republicans hope to score points ahead of November's congressional elections in which they hope to challenge the Democrats' control of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Republicans have criticized Obama for waiting three days before making his first public statement on the airliner attack and blasted his homeland security chief for initially saying that the system worked to thwart the potential disaster.
'FIX WHAT WENT WRONG'
Trying to seize the initiative, Obama said in his public remarks, I want our additional reviews completed this week. I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong. I want those reforms implemented immediately so that this doesn't happen again and so that we can prevent future attacks.
While giving few specifics of reforms yet to be announced, Obama promised changes in particular in the government's terrorist watch-list system.
Obama said U.S. intelligence ignored red flags and did not pull together pieces of information that could have headed off the attempted bombing.
The bottom line is this: the U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list, Obama said.
Abdulmutallab's name was in a U.S. database of about 550,000 people with suspected terrorist links but was not on a list that would have subjected him to additional security screening or kept him from boarding the flight.
His father earlier had warned U.S. officials of concerns about his son and critics say the CIA should have done more to flag the intelligence.
The White House said on Tuesday the administration has suspended the transfer of detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Yemen as a result of the deteriorating security situation there.
Obama bowed to political pressure not to send more prisoners to Yemen following revelations that Abdulmutallab had received al Qaeda training there.
The White House insisted Obama's focus on counterterrorism will not keep him from addressing jobs, healthcare reform and the rest of his agenda. The administration had wanted to focus on economic recovery efforts and job creation after the holidays. Opinion polls show those issues are topping Americans' concerns.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle, Ross Colvin, Alister Bull and Adam Entous; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott)