President Barack Obama took ultimate responsibility on Thursday for security failures that led to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner and ordered reforms aimed at thwarting future attacks.
Obama outlined the new steps, including tightened passenger screening and expanded terrorism watchlists, as the White House released a declassified account of what went wrong leading up to the December 25 incident in which a Nigerian man allegedly came close to blowing up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam.
With an eye to the potential political fallout over his administration's response, Obama again sought to reassure Americans he was doing everything possible to fix intelligence faults and beef up security to prevent further attacks. I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. For ultimately the buck stops with me, Obama said at the White House. When the system fails, it is my responsibility.
Addressing Americans about the near-disaster for the second time in three days, Obama laid out measures to plug security gaps exposed by the bomb plot, including wider distribution of intelligence, expanded use of body-scanning technology at airports and a review of how visas are issued and revoked.
The White House report ordered by Obama detailed how spy agencies failed to connect the dots and head off the attempted bombing, which authorities have blamed on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, who has been linked to a Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda. He is accused of concealing explosives in his underwear.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attempt, one of the most serious U.S. security breaches and intelligence breakdowns since the September 11 attacks.
By releasing the review, Obama may be seeking not only to assuage public safety concerns but minimize political damage to his administration before expected congressional committee hearings on the attempted attack.
Republicans have sought to paint the Democratic president as weak on national security issues, hoping to score points in a congressional election year. Obama had already acknowledged a security screw-up in the incident.
I worry that the president's preoccupation with healthcare and other domestic issues has distracted him from what should be the fundamental role of our chief executive: keeping our nation and its citizenry safe from harm, Republican Senator John Cornyn said.
With Obama just back this week from his Hawaiian vacation, counterterrorism has hit the top of his agenda, forcing him into a juggling act with other pressing priorities. The White House insists his attention is not being diverted from other pressing priorities like tackling double-digit unemployment.
PRESSURE ON INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY
Although Obama earlier had vowed accountability, his insistence the bombing attempt was a systemic failure and not the fault of any single individual suggested no immediate plan to shake up the U.S. intelligence leadership. But he kept up pressure on the intelligence community, which he said failed to understand the intelligence that we already had that would have uncovered the bomb plot.
The would-be bomber managed to slip through a security apparatus that was supposed to detect such plots since sweeping changes were implemented after the September 11, 2001, hijacked-plane attacks on the United States.
Although our intelligence community had learned a great deal about the al Qaida affiliate in Yemen ... that we knew that they sought to strike the United States and that they were recruiting operatives to do so, the intelligence community did not aggressively follow up on and prioritize particular streams of intelligence, Obama said.
Abdulmutallab's name was in a database of about 550,000 people with suspected terrorist ties but was never added to a no-fly list despite information gathered about him. Among the lapses was the fact Abdulmutallab's father told U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria his son had taken up radical views.
A top Yemeni official said Abdulmutallab was recruited by al Qaeda in London and met a radical American Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. Awlaki has been linked to the gunman charged with killing 13 people at the Fort Hood army base in Texas in November.
Abdulmutallab will be arraigned on Friday in federal court in Detroit, about 25 miles from the airport where he was taken into custody on Christmas Day, and faces charges that could bring him a sentence of life in prison.
'KEEPING DANGEROUS PEOPLE OFF AIRPLANES'
In his remarks, Obama sketched out measures aimed at improving the collection, sharing and analyzing of intelligence and at lowering the threshold for keeping dangerous people off airplanes, but offered few specifics.
I'm ordering an immediate effort to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to our terrorist watchlists, especially the no-fly list, he said.
Obama insisted, however, that we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices America's open society.
Janet Napolitano, U.S. Homeland Security chief, said she would go to Spain this month to meet allies and seek tougher international aviation security standards and added that 300 more advanced imaging scanners would be deployed at U.S. airports in 2010.
She told reporters the government would also increase the number of federal air marshals on flights and use other law-enforcement officers from across her department to help carry that out.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Patricia Zengerle and Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Peter Cooney)