US intelligence agencies collected enough information to thwart the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines Flight but did not integrate the information well enough to act upon it, President Barack Obama said in remarks Tuesday.
While reviews of where the breakdowns in intelligence and screening operations continue, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other US agencies have boosted security measures to keep would-be terrorists from threatening passenger aircraft again, Obama announced after meeting with key leaders of US national security agencies at the White House Tuesday afternoon.
"The bottom line is this: The US government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list," Obama declared.
"In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. The information was there, agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it, and our professionals were trained to look for it and to bring it all together," he added.
The US intelligence community knew of signs that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has taken responsibility for the failed Christmas Day attack, sought to strike the United States, Obama noted.
Vowing that he would not tolerate such failures, which allowed terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to threaten Northwest Flight 253 as it approached Detroit, Mich., on Dec.25, Obama said intelligence leaders were exploring reforms that would prevent such attacks in the future.
Intelligence chiefs have taken responsibility for shortfalls in their individual agencies, Obama said. Initial reviews due to wrap up this week should yield specific recommendations for addressing those shortfalls.
Soon after the bombing attempt, Obama ordered White House homeland security advisor John Brennan to review the system for maintaining US terrorist watch lists and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to review aviation screening technology and procedures.
Obama directed more screening and security for all flights, domestic and international, with US destinations after the bombing attempt. The President also ordered more explosive detection teams at US airports, more air marshals on flights, and more international cooperation.
Counter-terrorism officials also have been reviewing terrorist watch lists with an eye to improving them, Obama said.
"And while our review has found that our watch-listing system is not broken, the failure to add Abdulmutallab to the no-fly list shows that this system needs to be strengthened," he stated.
TSA began requiring enhanced security procedures for travelers coming to the United States from 14 nations sponsoring terrorism or suffering from high terrorist activity.
Furthermore, the US State Department has tasked US embassies and consulates to include visa information with warnings on individuals suspected of terrorism or terrorist links.
"And in the days ahead, I will announce further steps to disrupt attacks, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel," Obama stressed.
Obama again promised to close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but said the United States would not return detainees from Yemen to that country for the time being.
"Given the unsettled situation, I’ve spoken to the attorney general and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time," Obama commented.
Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that keeping the Yemeni detainees meant that they would go to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, which has been designated as an alternate jail for terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay.
Gibbs also revealed that bombing suspect Abdulmutallab was providing useful information to US intelligence agencies.
"The subject, as you know, was taken from the plane in Detroit. FBI interrogators spent quite some time with him. I don’t want to get into all the specifics, but I think they would agree, and I would say, that he has provided in those interrogations useful intelligence," Gibbs stated during Tuesday’s White House press briefing.
Gibbs also defended gains in information sharing within the intelligence community since 9/11, characterizing the breakdowns that could have thwarted the Christmas Day plot as lapses and not bureaucratic barriers.
The ongoing review of terrorist watch lists would help address those lapses, Gibbs said. US intelligence agencies placed Abdulmutallab on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) watch list after his father in Nigeria warned of his extremist intent several months ago, but Abdulmutallab was never placed on a no-fly list.
"What John Brennan will do is look through the different protocols, the different ways that information is gathered, and how we move people from TIDE to screening, ultimately to selectee and no-fly," he commented.
The Obama administration also is committed to deploying whole body imagers, which could have detected the explosive carried by Abdulmutallab, while striking a balance with privacy concerns over the nude images captured by the devices.
"I think the administration…that we can easily achieve a balance that allows us not to give up our privacy, but at the same time protects us from those that seek to do us harm," Gibbs said.