Declaring that “the buck stops with me,” President Obama on Thursday released the results of an internal investigation into the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt and ordered a series of incremental measures meant to close gaps in the U.S. intelligence system that failed to detect it in advance.
The president avoided blaming any particular agency or official for the breakdowns that allegedly allowed a Nigerian extremist to board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit armed with explosives, leaving a series of warning signs along the way.
“As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility,” Obama said.
The remedies he ordered in a memo to Cabinet officials and security chiefs mostly were modest steps. And the report, conducted by Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, concluded that another round of sweeping intelligence reorganization “is not required.”
“Before 9/11, there was often a reluctance or refusal to share information between departments and agencies,” Brennan said. “That is not what happened here.”
The president ordered the National Counterterrorism Center, which was created in the post-Sept. 11 intelligence overhaul and was singled out for criticism in the new report, “to prioritize and pursue thoroughly” terrorism tips.
The CIA also was faulted in the report for failing to assemble important clues. But CIA Director Leon E. Panetta issued a statement that seemed anything but apologetic.
The agency had collected and shared information about the alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, before the plot, Panetta said, but would now take steps to “do even more to support our government’s efforts.”
In particular, the agency gave itself a new 48-hour deadline for disseminating information on suspected extremists, and pledged to conduct more thorough traces on suspects’ names to pull up data that might otherwise fall through the cracks.
Obama also ordered the State Department to revoke visas when questions arise and to make it more difficult for people showing up in terrorism-related databases to receive visas. Abdulmutallab’s father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son was becoming radicalized and might be a threat to the United States, but the subsequent internal review found that a misspelling of Abdulmutallab’s name led State Department officials to mistakenly believe that he did not have a visa.
In a briefing following the release of the report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano unveiled a series of changes her agency is implementing, including plans that were in motion before Christmas to deploy 300 advanced imaging machines to airports around the country.
She also said that the administration would press foreign governments to tighten airport screening procedures.
The Christmas Day incident underscores that “the screening procedures at foreign airports are critical to our safety here in the United States,” she said. “After all, there were passengers from 17 countries aboard Flight 253. This is an international issue, not just one about the United States.”
Currently, 19 U.S. airports use the scanners. But the move to expand their use ran into strong opposition on privacy grounds from Republicans and Democrats in Congress last year. Civil libertarians described the scanners as a “virtual strip-search.”
In June, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a freshman Republican from Utah, won approval of a bill to bar the use of these body imagers as the primary scanners at airports. “Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane,” Chaffetz said at the time.
His amendment won on a 310-118 vote in June. The Senate has not taken up the idea.
For months, Republican critics have complained that Obama does not take a hard enough line against terrorism, and have criticized decisions such as his move to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
On Thursday, Obama reaffirmed his previous statements that the U.S. is, in fact, “at war” with Al Qaeda.
“Over the past two weeks, we’ve been reminded again of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction,” he said. “And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let’s be clear about what this moment demands. We are at war. We are at war against Al Qaeda.”
At the same time, however, the president said Americans shouldn’t sacrifice their ideals out of fear.
“Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust,” he said.
Obama acknowledged that the government may not be able to prevent every attempted attack against Americans. “There is, of course, no foolproof solution,” he said. “As we develop new screening technologies and procedures, our adversaries will seek new ways to evade them, as was shown by the Christmas attack. In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary.”
Abdulmutallab, 23, is to be arraigned today on charges of attempted murder, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and other charges that carry a penalty of as long as life in prison. Witnesses on the flight said he attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear.
Obama said he was more interested in fixing the problems than in assigning blame. Aides said there were no plans to fire anyone over the failures documented in the new report.
During the intensive reviews this week, White House aides said that various administration officials took responsibility for shortcomings in their agencies leading up to the Christmas Day incident. During an afternoon briefing with reporters, Brennan said Thursday that he personally felt he had failed the president.
“I told the president today I let him down,” Brennan said. “I am the president’s assistant for homeland security and counter-terrorism.”
Brennan also claimed responsibility for the fact that National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter left town with his family the day after Christmas. Brennan defended Leiter, who he said left a “full complement of folks” on duty, including his deputy.
“I said, ‘Mike, no, you deserve this vacation, you need to be with your son,’ so I was the one who told him he should go out there,” Brennan said.
Times staff writer David G. Savage in Washington contributed to this report.