President Obama: Security failure 'my responsibility'

Thursday, January 7, 2010 - 5:42pm

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Thursday accepted responsibility for intelligence shortcomings that led to a failed Christmas Day bombing plot on a Detroit-bound airliner, saying, “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,” Obama said.

Obama said an intelligence review found that the U.S. government had the information needed to thwart the plot but failed to do so because of a series of compounding shortcomings, including that intelligence analysts didn’t focus heavily enough on information warning that al-Qaeda in Yemen wanted to strike the United States.

“The U.S. government had the information scattered through the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack. Rather than a failure to collect and share this intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence we already had,” Obama said at the White House.

Obama’s buck-stops-here message marks a change in tone from earlier statements in which Obama and other officials repeatedly noted that the watch-listing system that failed to flag the suspect, Umar AbdulMatallab, was put in place under the Bush administration.

Obama’s comments came as the White House released the most detailed account to date of what information the U.S. Government had about the plot involving the 23-year-old Nigerian and why analysts failed to recognize it.

“Now, there is of course no fool-proof solution, as we develop new screening technologies and procedures, our adversaries will seek new ways to evade them. In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary.”

In the past, Obama White House officials have complained that President George W. Bush and his team were too slow to acknowledge mistakes and rarely took responsibility for them. Obama and his advisers seem intent on taking a different tack, in the hopes that Americans won’t hold the mistakes against the president if they’re convinced he’s moving quickly to fix them.

According to national security adviser Jim Jones, the accumulation of missed signals gives a “shock value” to the report. “I think there’s a certain shock to it,” Jones told USA Today Wednesday. “The man in the street will be surprised that these correlations weren’t made….There were a number of things that could have triggered the prevention of this man getting on an airplane.”

Jones said President Barack Obama is “legitimately and correctly alarmed” by the oversights and added that the episode has a parallel to the government’s inability to recognize clues that preceded the shooting that killed 12 people at Fort Hood in Texas in November. “There is no theater here in terms of how the president reacts,” Jones said in the interview.

The White House is confident it can remedy the failures demonstrated on Christmas Day and do so quickly. “We know what happened. We know what didn’t happen and we know how to fix it,” Jones said.

Part of the overall fix will include a surge in the air marshal program, putting more marshals onto international flights. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that they are canvassing other law enforcement branches within the agency for volunteers to beef up staffing for the marshals.

The report Thursday afternoon included new details of what government agencies did and planned to do in response to information they had about the terror suspect.

Jones said President Barack Obama is “legitimately and correctly alarmed” by the oversights and added that the episode has a parallel to the government’s inability to recognize clues that preceded the shooting that killed 12 people at Fort Hood in Texas in November. “There is no theater here in terms of how the president reacts,” Jones said in the interview.

The White House is confident it can remedy the failures demonstrated on Christmas Day and do so quickly. “We know what happened. We know what didn’t happen and we know how to fix it,” Jones said.

Part of the overall fix will include a surge in the air marshal program, putting more marshals onto international flights. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that they are canvassing other law enforcement branches within the agency for volunteers to beef up staffing for the marshals.

Agents from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection branch were aware of some of the intelligence about AbdulMutallab and decided while he was in the air to question him about his plans when he landed in Detroit, officials said Thursday, confirming a report in the Los Angeles Times. However, there were no plans to conduct an in-depth interrogation of AbdulMutallab, who had a valid visa, and no indication he would have been denied entry to the country, they said.

Meanwhile, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a member of the 9/11 Commission, said Thursday that the problems which led to the Christmas Day failure involve personnel and analysis, and not the configuration of the intelligence system itself.

“I do not see this as a structural problem,” Hamilton told reporters at a briefing organized by the Christian Science Monitor. “I see it as a situation where a number of government employees, some of whom would be at the mid-level, in other words, not at the top of the heap, missed things that they should have caught.”

Hamilton said officials were dutifully entering information into various databases which were theoretically accessible to other agencies, but no one was taking the initiative to run the leads about AbdulMutallab and the alleged plot to the ground.

“I think the failure is to investigate data that comes to you and to investigate it and follow it up very hard,” Hamilton said. “You get a flash on the computer screen saying the father of this young man said he had become radicalized, OK, that's a red flag. You must identify it as a red flag….You've got to begin to dig immediately as to what that means, what other data do we have about that young man... That is the flaw.”

Obama plans to give part of the task of diagnosing the intelligence failures to a blue-ribbon panel, the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. According to an administration official, Jones has reached out to the co-chairs of that group, former senators David Boren (D-Okla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), since the incident took place.

“The president has asked us to play an appropriate role in this matter, advising him,” Boren told POLITICO Thursday. “It would be improper for me to go beyond that….but we are involved.”

Obama’s team for the board, or PIAB in intelligence community parlance, was only barely in place at the time of the terrorist incident. While Boren and Hagel were formally named as co-chairs in October, another seven members of the panel, including Hamilton, were announced on December 23—two days before the attack. A few more members are expected to be announced soon.

A White House spokesman declined to say what Obama has asked the panel to do to assess the intelligence failures, but one senior official said there will be “some role.” The board is expected to meet in Washington next week.

One issue on the agenda will be whether the Director of National Intelligence position set up in the wake of 9/11 is performing its intended or best role. The staff under DNI Dennis Blair and his predecessors has grown substantially, but the Obama Administration has ceded to the CIA some of the oversight role Blair hoped for. A bill passed by Congress last year requires the White House to report by April on whether the DNI structure is working.