President Barack Obama Thursday issued a directive to the heads of federal agencies to improve intelligence analysis and aviation security procedures and thereby to correct lapses that allowed a Nigerian man to threaten a US-bound aircraft on Christmas Day.
"I have repeatedly made it clear–in public with the American people, and in private with my national security team–that I will hold my staff, our agencies and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels," Obama vowed at a White House press conference to announce the directives, issued on the heels of separate reviews of the Christmas Day incident from White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Obama summarized those reports as detailing three shortcomings: a failure to follow up on possible threats to the US homeland posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that would have revealed the plans of would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and shortcomings in US watch lists that permitted Abdulmutallab to avoid being placed on a no-fly list.
"In sum, the US government had the information–scattered throughout the system–to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack. Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had," Obama stated.
To correct these problems, Obama directed the heads of key intelligence, homeland security, diplomatic and legal agencies to implement steps in four general areas.
First, Obama told the intelligence community to assign leads on high-priority threats to specific agencies and agents, which would hold responsibility for following up on them.
Second, the intelligence community must disseminate intelligence reports describing threats to the United States more rapidly and more widely, Obama said.
Third, intelligence agencies must strengthen the processes by which they analyze intelligence.
Fourth, the federal government must fortify the criteria for placing individuals on terrorist watch lists, especially the no-fly list. Obama acknowledged that Abdulmutallab would have posed no threat to Northwest Airlines Flight 253, bound for Detroit, Mich., if he had been placed on a no-fly list after his father reported his radicalization in Yemen to US authorities in Nigeria last November.
Abdulmutallab underwent passenger screening in Amsterdam, where he boarded Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit. But he did not undergo whole body imaging or other advanced screening that might have detected explosives sewn into his underwear.
To address the potential security gaps arising from international screening, Obama directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to strengthen international partnerships to improve aviation security. He also told DHS to use more advanced explosive detection technologies such as whole body imaging and to work with the Department of Energy and the National Laboratories to produce even more advanced screening technology.
Furthermore, Obama ordered agency agencies to conduct internal accountability reviews. He tasked Brennan with reporting to him on the progress of implementing intelligence reforms and accountability reviews within 30 daysand at regular intervals afterward.
Obama described the failures that permitted Abdulmutallab to threaten the Northwest flight as "systemic" and not the fault of any specific individuals. As such, the President has declined to hold anyone personally responsible for the intelligence failings on Abdulmutallab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to date.
"Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. 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 declared.
The United States remains at war with al Qaeda, Obama reminded Americans, and the country must defeat them through whatever means it can.
Obama also ordered the US national security team to examine the threat posed by lone recruits to al Qaeda and to develop a strategy to address the challenges to stopping lone recruits.
In a press conference following Obama, Napolitano described the use of a lone recruit as the single biggest surprise in the Abdulmutallab attack.
Intelligence collecting on the plot was more difficult due to "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," Napolitano contended.
The secretary said DHS would follow-up on five specific recommendations to re-evaluate its procedures for creating terrorist watch lists, to establish a technology partnership between DHS and the Energy Department, to speed up deployment of advanced imaging technologies, to boost the capacities of aviation law enforcement by increasing the number of federal air marshals, and to strengthen international security measures and standards for aviation security.
With regard to advanced screening technologies, Napolitano reported that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has deployed 40 whole body imagers throughout the United States. TSA plans to deploy 300 more in 2010–and that number may increase.
The United States also must encourage foreign authorities to use the same advanced screening technologies, Napolitano said. DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute has been traveling to several countries across several continents to meet with their transportation security officials in recent days.
Napolitano herself will travel to Spain later this month to meet with European officials in an effort to come to new agreements on international aviation security standards and procedures.
Speaking at the same press conference, Brennan insisted the intelligence lapses that cleared the way for Abdullmutallab’s failed attack were different than the institutional problems in information sharing identified by the 9/11 Commission after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Before 9/11, there was often reluctance or refusal to share information between departments and agencies," Brennan commented. "As a result, different agencies and analysts across agencies were at times denied access to the critical information that could have stopped the tragic 9/11 attacks. And over the past eight years, those issues have largely been resolved.
"That is not what happened here," he asserted. "This was not a failure to share information. In fact, our review found the intelligence agencies and analysts had the information they needed. No agency or individual was denied access to that information. So as the President has said, this was not a failure to collect or share intelligence. It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we had."