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Obama faults air security system

Critical information not shared, he says; ‘Red flags’ could have kept suspect off plane

Passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were warned of the high risk of a terrorist attack. “We need to learn from this episode and act quickly . . . because our security is at stake and lives are at stake,’’ President Obama said yesterday. Passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were warned of the high risk of a terrorist attack. “We need to learn from this episode and act quickly . . . because our security is at stake and lives are at stake,’’ President Obama said yesterday. (Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters)
By Peter Baker and Carl Hulse
New York Times / December 30, 2009

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HONOLULU - President Barack Obama declared yesterday that there was a “systemic failure’’ of the nation’s security apparatus after being told about more missed signals and uncorrelated intelligence that should have prevented a would-be bomber from boarding a flight for the United States.

The president was told during a private briefing yesterday morning while vacationing in Hawaii that the government had a variety of information in its possession before the thwarted bombing that would have been a clear warning had it been shared between agencies, a senior official said.

Details of what the president learned before making his statement were unclear. Two officials, however, said the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda there were talking about “a Nigerian’’ being prepared for a terrorist attack. While it did not involve a name, offi cials said it would have been evident had it been compared with information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. The government also had more information about where Abdulmutallab had been and what some of his plans were.

Some of the information at the time was partial or incomplete and it was not obvious that it was connected, the official said, but in retrospect it now appears clear that had it all been examined together it would have pointed to the pending attack. The official said the administration was “increasingly confident’’ that Al Qaeda had a role in the attack, as the group’s Yemeni branch has publicly asserted.

Senior US officials told the Associated Press that intelligence authorities are now looking at conversations between the suspect in the failed attack and at least one Al Qaeda member. They did not say how these communications with Abdulmutallab took place by Internet, cellphone, or another method.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the conversations were vague or coded, but the intelligence community believes that, in hindsight, the communications may have been referring to the Detroit attack.

Intelligence officials would not confirm whether those conversations involved Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but other US government officials said there were initial indications that he was involved. Awlaki reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5.

Shortly after being briefed, Obama addressed reporters in his second public statement on the matter in as many days, announcing that a review had already revealed a breakdown in the intelligence review system that did not properly identify Abdulmutallab as a dangerous extremist who should have been prevented from flying to the United States.

“A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable,’’ Obama said. The president said he had ordered government agencies to give him a preliminary report tomorrow about what happened and added that he would “insist on accountability at every level,’’ although he did not elaborate.

Obama alluded to the intelligence in his statement. “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 president said. “The warning signs would have triggered red flags and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.’’

The president’s withering assessment of the government’s performance could reshape the intensifying political debate over the thwarted terrorist attack. Instead of defending the system, Obama sided with critics who contended that it did not work and positioned himself as a reformer who will fix it. At the same time, the decision to speak a second time after remaining out of sight for three days underscores the administration’s concern over being outflanked on national security.

The aftermath of the attempted bombing has been marked by an increasingly fierce partisan exchange over culpability heading into a midterm election year. With Republicans on the attack and accusing the administration of not taking terrorism seriously enough, Democrats are returning fire by contending that the opposition is standing in the way of needed personnel and money while exploiting public fears.

The debate has escalated since Obama’s secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, announced Sunday that “the system worked’’ after officials said the suspect tried to ignite explosive chemicals aboard a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. The next day Napolitano made clear she meant the system had worked in its response to the attempted bombing, not before it happened.

But Obama appeared to be trying to contain the damage yesterday, offering “systemic failure’’ as a substitute diagnosis for “system worked.’’ He framed Napolitano’s statement by saying she was right that “once the suspect attempted to take down Flight 253, after his attempt, it’s clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems, and our aviation security took all appropriate actions.’’

The president praised the professionalism of the nation’s intelligence, counterterrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement officials. But he spared little in his sharp judgment about how a known extremist could be allowed to board a flight bound for the United States after his own father had warned that he had become a radical.

“There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security,’’ Obama told reporters at the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay outside Honolulu, near his vacation home in Kailua. “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 suggested that he would overhaul the watchlist system. “We’ve achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks,’’ he said. “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.’’

Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian linked to a branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen, came to the attention of American authorities when his father went to the embassy last month to report that his son had expressed radical views before disappearing. The father, a respected retired banker, did not say his son planned to attack Americans but sought help locating him and bringing him home, US officials said.

The embassy sent a cable to Washington, which resulted in Abdulmutallab’s name being entered in a database of 550,000 people with possible ties to terrorism. But he was not put on the much smaller no-fly list of 4,000 people or on a list of 14,000 people who are required to undergo additional screening before flying, nor was his multiple-entry visa to the United States revoked.

“It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list,’’ Obama said of the father’s warning. “There appears to be other deficiencies as well. Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together.’’