Obama Criticizes 'Systemic Failure'

Agencies Bungled Chance To Keep Would-be Terrorist Off U.s.-bound Jet, He Says

President Speaks Out On Airline Scare

December 30, 2009|By Josh Meyer, Peter Nicholas and Alana Semuels | Josh Meyer, Peter Nicholas and Alana Semuels,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - - In an unusually frank assessment of the Detroit bomber investigation, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that a potentially catastrophic "mix of human and systemic failures" was responsible for allowing a suspected extremist to board a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day armed with an explosive device that could have killed nearly 300 people.

"A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said in brief remarks to reporters near his vacation retreat in Hawaii.

Obama was critical of unspecified U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security agencies for failing to act on information that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father, a respected Nigerian banker, provided to the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Abuja six weeks before the attacks.

U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday the information involved how Abdulmutallab may have become dangerously radicalized and involved with militants in Yemen.

Separately, White House officials told The Washington Post that the government had intelligence suggesting a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaida around Christmastime.

The president also hinted that U.S. intelligence agencies missed or ignored other clues before Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam with a valid U.S. visa and, allegedly, a hidden packet of military-grade explosives.

"Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together," Obama said. "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 warning signs would have triggered red flags," he said, "and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."

Neither Obama nor members of his national security team would comment on the nature of that intelligence, or why the president had chosen to refer to it in general terms. Officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies also had no comment.

An angered Obama told reporters traveling with him on vacation here that he wanted a preliminary report by Thursday on what went wrong on Christmas Day, when the suspect carried explosives onto a flight from Amsterdam despite the fact the suspect had possible ties to al-Qaida.

It will take weeks for a more thorough inquiry into what allowed the 23-year-old Nigerian to board the airplane he is accused of trying to blow up. Law enforcement officials believe the suspect tried to ignite a two-part concoction of the high explosive PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive, setting off popping, smoke and some fire but no deadly detonation. Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to destroy an aircraft, is being held at the federal prison in Milan, Mich.

Two U.S. officials said that the intelligence-sharing lapse involved a report that the CIA prepared, based on information from the father, that was not shared with the broader intelligence or homeland security community for further follow-up or consideration for placement on the list.

"It contained information that potentially could have gotten this guy added to the no-fly list, and could very well have prevented this attack," an administration official said.

One of the officials also said that the CIA had been tracking an unspecified Nigerian since August but stressed that the agency did not have enough information to identify him as Abdulmutallab or to connect him to any plot.

"There are a lot of Nigerians out there," the official said. That official also disagreed with the idea that the information could have helped stop the Christmas attack.

"The notion that there was some magic piece of intelligence that could have put him on the watch list that wasn't shared just isn't correct," the official said.

Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.

Abdulmutallab had been placed in one government advisory system, but never made it onto more restrictive lists that would have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorist screeners, despite his father's warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month. Those warnings also did not result in Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa's being revoked.

The Central Intelligence Agency said it worked with embassy officials to make sure that Abdulmutallab's name made it into the government's database of suspected terrorists and noted his potential extremist connections in Yemen. The CIA also said it forwarded that information to the National Counterterrorism Center.

Officials in Yemen were investigating whether Abdulmutallab spent time with al-Qaida militants there during the months leading up to the botched bombing attack.

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