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Obama Wants Answers on Intelligence Failures, Flight Screening by Thursday

5 years ago
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President Obama said Tuesday "a mix of human and systemic failures" led to suspected terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab being able to board Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day with explosive materials hidden in his underwear. The president has demanded a preliminary review completed by Thursday of airline screening procedures and how information on terrorist watch lists is shared by law enforcement officials.

Obama's statement came as new information surfaced overnight Monday that the U.S. government had "bits and pieces" of Abdulmutallab's plan in its possession in advance. That information, according to a senior administration official -- the White House would not allow his name to be used -- "spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some plans of al-Queda were."

Regarding al-Queda, the official said, "New information that we've developed overnight does suggest that there was some linkage there."

Obama said that if all intelligence about Abdulmutallab was shared -- his father, a Nigerian banker, told U.S. officials about his sons' extremist views -- "a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."

The president made his comments while on vacation in Hawaii, where he arrived Christmas Eve. His remarks -- the second time he addressed the Christmas Day incident -- were harsher than those made on Monday and angrier in tone. Obama is coming under attack from Republicans in Congress for being slow to react and for initial statements by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the Sunday morning news shows that seemed to downplay the near-tragedy, which was averted when passengers and crew thwarted Abdulmutallab's attempt to ignite the explosives.

The administration also took pains Tuesday to offer on-the record details of how much Obama is engaging in this crisis while on vacation -- as reports come out daily about his tennis and golf games. Denis McDonough, the National Security Council chief of staff, said Obama gets two written updates daily from the National Counterterroism Center and three reports daily from the White House Situation Room, as well as a morning face-to-face briefing on overnight intelligence.

McDonough also portrayed Obama as so involved in details that "he thought it appropriate that the secretary of Homeland Security, who had not been previously scheduled to go on the shows, go out on the Sunday morning shows to explain what was happening." Asked if there was any discussion or consideration of cutting the vacation short, McDonough said he was not aware of any and noted that "the president has a full team here."

Obama ordered the reviews on Sunday, with the formal directives released Tuesday detailing the information he wants by Thursday.

Abdulmutallab, 23, flew from Lagos, Nigeria, to Amsterdam on Dec. 24, where he boarded the Detroit-bound flight. Though his name was on a U.S. terrorist watch list, he was not on the shorter "no-fly" list and his multiple-entry U.S. visa remained valid.

An aviation screening review -- led by the Homeland Security Department -- will take in, according to the directive, "all aspects of aviation screening technology and procedures regarding domestic and international air travel." On Thursday, Obama wants suggestions for "strengthening aviation screening technology and procedures and outlining how the Department of Homeland Security plans to proceed."

The watch-listing files and procedures review is being done by the FBI, CIA, the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the National Security Agency. After the 9/11 attacks, the agencies were supposed to be sharing intelligence in order to connect any dots. A key suggestion of the 9/11 Commission was for the U.S. government to consolidate and encourage information sharing. In the wake of the attacks, the Homeland Security Department was created and the intelligence agencies overseen by a Director of National Intelligence.

Obama wants "an inventory" of all intelligence and information in government files about Abdulmutallab up through Christmas -- the dates when the data was available -- and a "written account" of how the information was shared and acted upon.

Obama also wants a review of the terrorist watch list system, and of how "those standards and processes have developed, or have been revised since 2001."

The administration official said, "We're talking about gigantic databases with a huge number of people and information in it."

"The president is looking for answers on this with dispatch," McDonough said. The administration will mark its first anniversary on Jan. 20, and McDonough said that "obviously the procedures and protocols employed in this instance are ones that we inherited, that have been built over the course of several years since 2003."

The senior official said a lot of the information Obama is demanding started to be assembled on Friday by John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

Said the official, "We've been pulsing this system very aggressively since Friday."

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