Obama assails intelligence failures in Christmas incident

An angry President Obama said Tuesday that there had been “unacceptable” failures in the American intelligence system that allowed an accused terrorist to board a U.S.-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, and vowed changes in security procedures and information gathering to avert future plots.

The president held a lengthy afternoon session with top administration officials, during which agency heads acknowledged their shortcomings and laid plans for corrections.

“This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous,” Obama told the officials, White House officials said later. “We dodged a bullet, but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked -- and that is not acceptable.”


Administration officials did not rule out the possibility of firings over the incident, although Obama admonished White House staffers and Cabinet chiefs in the closed session not to engage in “finger-pointing” over the failures, White House officials said.

Obama, speaking publicly later, outlined two key reviews -- of airline screening procedures and U.S. intelligence -- and said that findings and new security measures would be announced in the coming days.

While Obama did not specify changes affecting travelers, a national security official said Tuesday that some steps would be reminiscent of the period after Sept. 11, 2001, when travelers confronted bewildering new procedures and tightened security. Since the Christmas incident, officials have mobilized on several fronts in an effort likely to make it harder to enter the U.S., the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“There will be a scrub of everything, including visas,” the official said. “More and more, it might go back somewhat to the way it was in the years right after 9/11, and people might complain about it.”

The aftermath of the failed attack is pushing the Department of Homeland Security to intensify its focus on terrorism, the issue that led to the creation of a vast federal department with an array of enforcement duties and 230,000 employees, officials said.

“Talk about a wake-up call,” the national security official said. “This has been a stark reminder to DHS about why they were created. Terrorism is going to be a larger focus of DHS and its component agencies. . . . That means more resources and people looking at visas, airports and ports, financial crimes with terrorist links.”

On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dispatched two top aides -- Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute, her top intelligence official, and Assistant Secretary for Policy David Heyman -- on a worldwide outreach effort to improve aviation security for U.S.-bound flights.

The two officials met with counterparts in Amsterdam, where the accused Nigerian bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had taken off for Detroit. Western counter-terrorism officials have identified Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as a hub for travel of suspected extremists, including American militants headed to join fighters in Somalia, according to counter-terrorism officials.

Although security at the airport is considered good, some laws in the Netherlands restrict anti-terrorism enforcement, according to U.S. and European anti-terrorism officials.

The itinerary of Napolitano’s deputies also includes Britain, Belgium, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Australia, Nigeria and Brazil. Their goal is to lay the groundwork for agreements to improve security technology and policies, according to a Homeland Security official who requested anonymity because the larger review was not complete. Countries such as Britain are proposing to implement full-body scanners at airports.

The discussions overseas are also likely to focus on increased sharing of information about airline passengers. That issue has been a point of contention with the 27-country European Union. For years, European governments have cited strict privacy laws in resisting American requests for more details about travelers departing from Europe.

There has been tension with other countries as well. Last year, the Turkish government rebuffed a request from the FBI to share data on travelers passing through Turkey, a crossroads for extremists going to and from hot spots including Iraq, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Chechnya, according to the national security official and other sources.

But the Detroit attack gives new impetus to the U.S. effort.

"[This] means sitting across from our foreign partners, the Brits, the Dutch, and taking a tougher line on getting them to share information with us,” the national security official said. “There has always been a problem getting countries to share flight manifests, documenting transit passengers.”

The Department of Homeland Security is also likely to focus on a review of potential dangers such as suspected extremists who have managed to obtain U.S. visas, the national security official said. Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up the Amsterdam-Detroit flight, had a valid U.S. visa that was not revoked after a tip from his father that he had apparently joined Islamic extremists in Yemen after studying for three years in London.

In contrast, British authorities denied Abdulmutallab’s request for a new student visa last year after determining that he had named a bogus college on the application. The denial resulted from a British immigration crackdown after a case last year in which Pakistanis suspected of terrorism entered Britain by posing as students.

The Homeland Security official declined to comment on potential new scrutiny of those holding or applying for visas. The State Department reviews visa applications, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement plays a role in cases of suspected fraud.

While changes in screening procedures will have a more visible effect nationally, most of Obama’s ire was directed toward the intelligence failures. In addition to an administration review, congressional inquiries are likely.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the incident demonstrated the need to overhaul how the government collects information so that it can anticipate threats before they arise. Feingold said he would offer a measure to create an independent commission to implement such reforms.

“It should never take an attempted terrorist bombing for us to notice a long-standing terrorist safe haven,” he said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Obama has placed John Brennan, his counter-terrorism advisor, in charge of a top-level review to examine terrorist lists and red flags the president said had been missed. Those included missed tips that Abdulmutallab had trained with Al Qaeda and that he might have been known as a prime operative.

“The U.S. 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,” Obama said, adding that it was not a failure to collect intelligence but a failure to “integrate and understand” information already in hand. “That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it,” he said.

Nonetheless, one senior administration official said that the president was not looking to tear up the entire terrorist detection system and start over, given that it “has worked well in the past.”

Instead, the administration wants to “up our game” in detecting and preventing attacks, said another official, Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff.

The U.S. reaction to the Detroit case shows a tendency to emphasize technology, bureaucracy and border defenses instead of improving the agility and training of law enforcement and intelligence agents, critics say.

“The agencies are too big and intelligence does not circulate well inside them or among them,” said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a veteran French anti-terrorism magistrate. “The U.S. has to change its doctrine, which is very defensive, creating a kind of Maginot line at the borders of the United States. You will never have absolute security.”

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.