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What Surprised Brennan, Napolitano In Wake of Flight 253 Attack

4 years ago
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Some of the most significant findings in the White House review released Thursday of intelligence failures that could have prevented a Christmas terrorist attack on Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253 had to do with the strength of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula and the willingness of the group to send out a solo operator to destroy a plane.
"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an extension of al-Qaeda core coming out of Pakistan," said President Obama's top Homeland Security Adviser, John Brennan, when asked about what shocked or stunned him in the review findings.
"The fact that they had moved forward to try to execute this attack against the homeland I think demonstrated to us -- and this is what the review sort of uncovered -- that we had a strategic sense of sort of where they were going, but we didn't know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here," he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, taking on the same question, said "the tactic of using an individual to foment an attack, as opposed to a large conspiracy or a multiperson conspiracy such as we saw in 9/11," was a revelation for her.
The findings are in the unclassified version of the review President Obama ordered after he announced last month that the attack -- foiled by passengers and crew -- occurred because of a failure of the nation's intelligence system.
In the days after the attack, Obama said it could have been avoided, and the report put it in stark terms: The U.S. "had sufficient information" prior to Dec. 25 to identify a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, "as a likely operative" of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which, if realized, could have "potentially" prevented him from boarding the plane in Amsterdam.
His father warned U.S. officials in Nigeria that his son held extremist views and was en route to Yemen. Abdulmutallab was on a terrorist watch list and also held a valid U.S. visa. The review said that his name was spelled a different way in a State Department visa database, which allowed him to avoid being flagged before getting on the flight. But even if his name had been spelled correctly, the different streams of intelligence tips were not in a coherent form that would have sent off alarms to officials, the review said.
Brennan and Napolitano discussed the report at a press briefing after the president took responsibility for a terrorist attack on his watch. Obama, reading a brief statement said, "ultimately, the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility."
Brennan's job is secure for now, as is Napolitano's. The Obama White House is more interested in looking ahead and fixing the intelligence system than in engaging in what could be seen as sacrificial firings. Obama put Brennan in charge of overseeing a stepped-up effort to connect the dots and report back to him in 30 days.
Clearly, though, the day's message was designed for Obama and Brennan to deal with the intelligence failure and take some blame. "I told the president today I let him down," Brennan volunteered at the top of their joint appearance in the White House briefing room, presided over by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Napolitano did not offer a similar comment.
Security has already been beefed up at airports in the U.S; more bomb sniffing dogs, behavorial detection officers and other measures, seen and unseen. Napolitano has also pushed for bolstered security screenings at international airports. Last weekend, the U.S. said passport holders from 14 nations associated with terrorism would have secondary searches when boarding any U.S. bound flight.
Napolitano said Thursday her department will work with the Department of Energy to develop better mechanical screening devices. There are only 40 advanced imaging machines -- full-body scanners -- used in the U.S.; some 300 are on order for 2010.
That means many passengers may face more pat-downs for now. I asked Napolitano if that was the case and "What do you say to people who are just squeamish about personal privacy being invaded and body searches?"
Napolitano told me, "Well, obviously, as we move to strengthen security we always have this balance to be struck with issues about personal privacy. Here in the United States we train officers on how to properly conduct a pat-down.
"They do it in other countries around the world as well. Part of the initiative that we are undertaking is to make sure that that kind of training and capacity is built in continents around the globe. But you are right -- it is likely, in addition to the things that I listed, that there will be increases of pat-downs as well."
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