President Barack Obama asked for preliminary findings on reviews of the US terrorist watch list system and of air travel screening to be delivered to him in Hawaii by Thursday, he revealed in remarks Tuesday at Kaneohe Bay Marine Base.
The goal of those reviews is to identify lapses in procedures related to watch lists and screening and then to begin fixing them. Preliminary results from those reviews will assist with "diagnosing the problems quickly and dealing with them immediately," Obama added.
"Now, the more comprehensive, formal reviews and recommendations for improvement will be completed in the coming weeks, and I’m committed to working with Congress and our intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security communities to take all necessary steps to protect the country," Obama emphasized.
Calling a chain of apparent deficiencies "a systemic failure" that could have cost the lives of nearly 300 people on Northwest Flight 253, Obama said warnings concerning terrorist suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from his own father in Nigeria were not properly distributed throughout the US intelligence community.
Doing so could have placed Abdulmatallab on a no-fly list and prevented him from boarding the plane to Detroit, Mich., with explosive materials in an apparent attempt to blow it up on Christmas Day, Obama said.
"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 asserted. "We’ve achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks. 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."
Had the intelligence community pieced together that information, the suspected bomber could have been stopped from boarding the plane in Nigeria, Obama concluded.
Obama also attempted to back up Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has faced a firestorm of criticism since Sunday, when she said in an interview that "the system worked."
He suggested that her words applied to homeland security and aviation security agencies taking all appropriate actions once the suspect was subdued by passengers and crew on Flight 253 when his explosives failed to detonate.
"The reviews I’ve ordered will surely tell us more. But what already is apparent is that there was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security. We need to learn from this episode and act quickly to fix the flaws in our system, because our security is at stake and lives are at stake," Obama commented.
Despite Obama’s assurances for a thorough investigation of any systemic failures, both chambers of Congress have vowed to conduct their own investigations beginning with hearings in January.
Congress remains out of session until sometime in mid-January, when it traditionally returns prior to the President’s State of the Union Address.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, first vowed Monday that his committee would investigate lapses in aviation security when Congress returns in January.
Later that day, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) declared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also would investigate.
"I am troubled by several aspects of this case, including how the suspect escaped the attention of the State Department and law enforcers when his father apparently reported concerns about his son’s extremist behavior to the US embassy in Lagos, how the suspect managed to retain a US visa after such complaints, and why he was not recognized as someone who reportedly was named in the terrorist database," Lieberman said in a statement.
Collins said the senators would hold a hearing in January "to examine the layers of security meant to protect airline passengers from terrorist attacks but which accused terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully evaded."
The hearing would seek to identify why names of passengers boarding US-bound flights are not checked against the large Terrorist Screening Database instead of a much smaller no-fly list. Collins also promised to press for answers as to why more passengers are not subject to whole body imaging scanners that likely could have detected the explosive substances Abdulmutallab concealed in his underwear.
"Our committee’s inquiry will focus on identifying information-sharing and analysis gaps as well as any other security breakdowns," Collins said in a Monday statement. "Our committee will ask why the names of passengers boarding planes to the United States are not run against all the databases of suspected terrorists, so that individuals of concern can be subjected to more thorough questioning and inspections."