Obama Administration Underestimated the Immediate Threat Posed by ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’
January 8, 2010 - 9:36 AMPresident Obama and his White House counterterrorism adviser on Thursday accepted responsibility for attempted terror attack on Christmas Day that could have knocked an airliner out of the sky over Michigan.
Although Obama called for increased accountability, no one was fired: “I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer,” the president said. “For ultimately, the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility.”
Obama spoke after the White House released a declassified report on why the government failed to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallb’s terror plot from going as far as it did.
The 23-year-old Nigerian, acting on instructions from the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, boarded a Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam on Christmas Day with explosives sewn into his underwear. His attempt to ignite those explosives produced flames but not a blast big enough to blow up the plane. A passenger subdued Abdulmutallab, and the flight crew restrained him until the plane landed.
“The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered and potentially disrupted the December 25 attack – including by placing Mr. Abdulmutallab on the No Fly list – but analysts within the CT [counterterrorism] community failed to connect the dots that could have identified and warned of the specific threat,” the six-page White House review said. “The preponderance of the intelligence related to the plot was available broadly to the intelligence community.”
The report was completed by the staff of John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
“I told the president today I let him down,” Brennan told reporters at a White House briefing Thursday, shortly after President Barack Obama addressed the nation on the matter. “I am the president's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, and I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team.”
Most shocking discovery?
Asked “what was the most shocking, stunning thing that you found” as part of the review, Brennan mentioned the lethality of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which he described as an “extension” of al-Qaeda in Pakistan:
“The fact that they had moved forward to try to execute this attack against the homeland I think demonstrated to us -- and this is what the review sort of uncovered -- that we had a strategic sense of sort of where they were going, but we didn't know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here. And we have taken that lesson, and so now we're full on top of it,” Brennan said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napalitano, answering the same question, said she was particularly concerned by “the tactic of using an individual to foment an attack, as opposed to a large conspiracy or a multi-person conspiracy such as we saw in 9/11 -- that is something that affects intelligence. It really emphasizes now the renewed importance on how different intelligence is integrated and analyzed, and threat streams are followed through. And again, it will impact how we continue to review the need to improve airport security around the world.”
President Obama told the American people – in remarks delivered at the White House – that “although our intelligence community had learned a great deal about the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen -- called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- 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 related to a possible attack against the homeland.”
Obama said the failure to follow up on the terrorists in Yemen contributed to a “failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community and which, together, could have revealed that Abdulmutallab was planning an attack.”
‘We are at war’
The president said the botched attack is a reminder “of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let's be clear about what this moment demands: We are at war. We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.”
The president outlined several new directives to improve security, including increasing the number of people on the ‘no fly’ list and having the intelligence community more aggressively follow leads. (See related story)
Brennan’s review identifies the following as its most significant findings:
-- Leaders of the intelligence community “did not increase analytic resources working on the full [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] threat”;
-- The government’s watchlist system is “not broken but needs to be strengthened and improved” as evidenced by the failure to add Abdulmutallab to the No Fly list;
-- A reorganization of the intelligence or broader counterterrorism community is not required to address problems that surfaced in the review, a fact made clear by countless other successful efforts to thwart ongoing plots.”
Both Brennan and Obama stressed that there is no problem in collecting and sharing intelligence, but the report does note a failure to “identify, correlate and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government related to an emerging terrorist plot against the U.S. homeland.”
Most of the “discrete” pieces of information on the Christmas Day plot were gathered between October and December 2009, the report said.
“For example, on November 18, Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father met with U.S. Embassy officers in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss his concerns that his son may have come under the influence of identified extremists, and had planned to travel to Yemen,” the report said.
“Though this information alone could not predict Mr. Abdulmutallab’s eventual involvement in the attempted 25 December attack, it provided an opportunity to link information on him with the earlier intelligence reported that contained fragmentary information.”
Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano announced five steps that her department will take to improve airline security.
First, she wants a reevaluation of the criteria used to place people on the terror watch list. She also wants to increase the number of “imaging technologies” (body scanners than can see beneath clothing) at airports. She has called for an increase in the number of federal air marshals.
Napolitano said her Homeland Security Department will establish a partnership with the Energy Department and its national laboratories to produce new aviation screening technology. And she also wants to work with the State Department – which issues visas -- to strengthen international security measures.