HONOLULU – President Obama on Tuesday blamed a “systemic failure” in the nation’s security apparatus for the attempted bombing of a passenger jet on Christmas Day and vowed to identify the problems and “deal with them immediately.”
Making his second public statement on the matter in as many days, Mr. Obama said a preliminary assessment already has made clear that there was a breakdown in the intelligence review system that did not properly identify the suspect as a dangerous extremist who should have been prevented from flying to the United States.
“A systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable,” Mr. Obama told reporters here in Hawaii, where is in the middle of a 10-day holiday vacation. The president said he has ordered government agencies to report back to him on Thursday about what happened and said he would “insist on accountability at every level,” although he did not elaborate.
The president came to his conclusion, aides said, after learning more Tuesday morning about a variety of information that the government had in its possession before the incident that, had it been correlated properly, would have been a clear warning sign. Among other things, one official said, the government had intelligence about a possible Al Qaeda attack around the holidays and had more information about where the suspect had been and what some of his plans were.
Some of the information at the time was partial or incomplete and it was not obvious that it was connected, the official said, but in retrospect it now appears clear that had it all been examined together it would have pointed to a pending attack involving the Nigerian suspect. The official said the administration is “increasingly confident” that Al Qaeda had a role in the attack, as the group’s Yemeni branch has publicly claimed.
Mr. Obama alluded to the intelligence in his statement. “Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged,” the president said. “The warning signs would have triggered red flags and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
The president’s blunt words came just two days after his secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, drew criticism for saying that “the system worked” after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to ignite explosive chemicals aboard a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. Ms. Napolitano quickly recalibrated her statement to make clear she meant that the system worked in its response to the incident after it occurred. But Mr. Obama’s sharp assessment Tuesday sent a signal that he was not satisfied by the government’s performance.
Mr. Obama took no questions but referred obliquely to Ms. Napolitano’s statement by saying she was right that “once the suspect attempted to take down Flight 253, after his attempt, it’s clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems and our aviation security took all appropriate actions.”
He went on to praise the professionalism of the nation’s intelligence, counterterrorism, homeland security and law enforcement officials. But he spared little in his withering judgment of what he called a “mix of human and systemic failures” that did not catch Mr. Abdulmutallab in the first place.
The president suggested that he would overhaul the nation’s watch-list system. “We’ve achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks,” he said. “But it’s becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.”
Mr. Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who claims links to a branch of Al Qaeda, came to the attention of American authorities when his father went to the embassy last month to report that his son had become radicalized. The father, a respected retired banker, did not say his son planned to attack Americans but sought help locating him and bringing him home, according to American officials.
The embassy sent a cable to Washington that resulted in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name being entered in a broad database of 550,000 people with possible ties to terrorism. But he was not put on the much smaller no-fly list of 4,000 people, or a list of 14,000 people who require additional screening before flying, nor was his multiple-entry visa to the United States revoked.
“It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list,” Mr. Obama said of the father’s warning. “There appears to be other deficiencies as well. Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together.”