Obama spoke today after meeting with his national defense team at the White House. The team included officials from the intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement agencies.
Only quick actions by passengers stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian with suspected ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight with about 300 people aboard as it approached Detroit on Dec. 25.
The president said there have been intelligence victories against al-Qaida, “but when a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future.”
The president reiterated that the U.S. intelligence community knew that Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen and joined extremists there. “It now turns out that our intelligence community knew of other red flags: that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike not only American targets in Yemen but the United States itself,” he said.
“The bottom line is this: 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, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list,” Obama said. “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.”
American intelligence analysts had the information but did not fully analyze or leverage that knowledge, the president said. “That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it,” he said.
Obama gave the intelligence agencies a deadline to complete their initial reviews this week. “I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong,” he said. “I want those reforms implemented immediately, so that this doesn’t happen again and so we can prevent future attacks.”
Obama said every member of the team understands the gravity of the situation and the urgency of getting it right. “I appreciate that each of them took responsibility for the shortfalls within their own agencies,” he said.
Obama also announced that further detainee transfers to Yemen will be suspended for the time being. This will not affect his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he said.
The president said that intelligence agencies and homeland security officials must be nimble to stay ahead of al-Qaida.
“Just as al-Qaida and its allies are constantly evolving and adapting their efforts to strike us, we have to constantly adapt and evolve to defeat them because, as we saw on Christmas, the margin for error is slim, and the consequences of failure can be catastrophic,” he said.
The United States will stay on the offensive against the extremist group. “We intend to target al-Qaida wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary, as we are doing currently with the government in Yemen,” he said.
The United States also will strengthen defenses against terrorists and improve screening.
Obama sees American intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement systems working together seamlessly. He wants the professionals in these areas to collect, share, integrate, analyze and act on intelligence “as quickly and effectively as possible to save innocent lives, not just most of the time, but all of the time,” he said. “That’s what the American people deserve. As president, that’s exactly what I will demand.”