WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence chief Admiral Dennis Blair faced tough questions about his future on Wednesday as the Obama administration fended off criticism over the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on December 25.
Publicly, the White House was standing by Blair, the United States' top spymaster who is responsible for coordinating intelligence gathering between 16 agencies, saying the four-star admiral had the full confidence of the president.
This is not about one person or one agency, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
But speculation was rife that Blair or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano could be forced to resign after President Barack Obama said on Tuesday there had been a systemic failure by the country's security agencies to prevent the botched Christmas Day attack.
Napolitano has been lambasted by Republican critics, and in the media, for initially saying the air security system worked, and then backpedaling and saying she had meant the system of beefing up measures worked after the incident had occurred.
Kurt Volker, a former CIA analyst and until recently U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Blair and Napolitano were facing the traditional Washington blame game.
That's politics. It's the way politics goes, that you look for whom you can blame so you can say, if my party had been elected instead of yours, things would have been better, said Volker, now at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
A senior aide said Obama would seek accountability at the highest levels for the failure, a remark some observers took to mean that heads would roll.
Obama, a Democrat, is under pressure from Republicans, who fault his administration for not preventing the attack and the president for keeping silent about it for three days while on vacation in Hawaii.
The Republicans portrayed Obama as weak on national security even as he campaigned for last year's presidential election, and have sought to push that point before mid-term elections in November, when they will challenge the Democrats' control of both houses of the U.S. Congress.
CHENEY SNIPES AT OBAMA
The terrorist plot to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 exposed a near-catastrophic failure at every level of our government, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said in a statement.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who staked out a position as a leading security hawk under President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks and is a vocal critic of Obama's national security policies, also weighed in.
He told Politico news website: As I've watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war.
He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war.
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer retorted that it was telling that Vice President Cheney and others seem to be more focused on criticizing the administration than condemning the attackers.
Unfortunately, too many are engaged in the typical Washington game of pointing fingers and making political hay, instead of working together to find solutions to make our country safer, he said in a blog post on whitehouse.gov.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, is charged with smuggling explosives on board and attempting to blow up the Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board.
In candid criticism of the failures that could have led to disaster, Obama said U.S. security agencies had failed to piece together bits of information to prevent Abdulmutallab from boarding the flight with explosives.
As director of national intelligence, it is Blair's job to connect the dots. The position was created by Congress in an effort to correct the intelligence failures blamed in part for the September 11 hijacked plane attacks on the United States eight years ago.
Writing in the Washington Post on December 18, Blair said, Our nation is becoming safer every day because we are aware that information increases in power only when it is shared. But, he acknowledged ongoing problems in our technologies, business practices and mind-sets.
Blair said on Tuesday that while the intelligence community had dramatically improved information sharing since September 11, it is clear that gaps remain and they must be fixed.
Obama has ordered a review of information sharing procedures and he is due to receive a preliminary report on Thursday. Gibbs said he was uncertain whether the findings would be made public. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Deborah Charles in Washington and Jeff Mason in Hawaii; Editing by Frances Kerry and Chris Wilson)