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Obama Orders Intelligence Revamp; Says ‘Buck Stops with Me’

January 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama on Thursday outlined the intelligence missteps that failed to prevent an attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, saying that while the incident was a systemic failure, "ultimately the buck stops with me."

JIM LEHRER: The official story of how the airline bomb plot eluded U.S. security was made public today. And, at the White House, President Obama ordered changes in the handling of information on potential threats. The report said the government had sufficient information to potentially disrupt the plot.

It faulted U.S. intelligence for failing to focus more resources on the al-Qaida group that claimed responsibility for the attempted attack. And it said the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center didn’t search all available databases for the Nigerian charged with the attempted bombing.

“NewsHour” correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama steps to the lectern in the White House State Dining Room two days after he sharply criticized U.S. intelligence for major failings. Today, he elaborated.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First, although our intelligence community had learned a great deal about the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that we knew that they sought to strike the United States and that they were recruiting operatives to do so, the intelligence community didn’t aggressively follow up on and prioritize particular streams of intelligence related to a possible attack against the homeland.

Second, this contributed to a larger failure of analysis, a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community and which together could have revealed that Abdulmutallab was planning an attack.

Third, this in turn fed into shortcomings in the watch-listing system which resulted in this person not being placed on the no-fly list, thereby allowing him to board that plane in Amsterdam for Detroit.

In sum, the U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack. Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the president spoke, officials released declassified results of the investigation so far.

Among the new revelations: The 23-year-old Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, already was airborne when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials flagged him for extra screening. It was to have taken place once he landed in Detroit.

In light of such disclosures, Mr. Obama said it’s clear a number of things need to be done:

BARACK OBAMA: Today, I’m directing a series of additional corrective steps across multiple agencies. Broadly speaking, they fall into four areas.

First, I’m directing that our intelligence community immediately begin assigning specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively not just most of the time, but all of the time.

We must follow the leads that we get, and we must pursue them until plots are disrupted. And that means assigning clear lines of responsibility.

Second, I’m directing that intelligence reports, especially those involving potential threats to the United States, be distributed more rapidly and more widely. We can’t sit on information that could protect the American people.

Third, I’m directing that we strengthen the analytical process, how our analysis — how our analysts process and integrate the intelligence that they receive.

My director of national intelligence, Denny Blair, will take the lead in improving our day-to-day efforts. My intelligence advisory board will examine the longer term challenge of sifting through vast universes of intelligence and data in our information age.

And, finally, I’m ordering an immediate effort to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to our terrorist watch lists, especially the no-fly list. We must do better in keeping dangerous people off airplanes, while still facilitating air travel.

So taken together, these reforms will improve the intelligence community’s ability to collect, share, integrate, analyze and act on intelligence swiftly and effectively.

In short, they will help our intelligence community do its job even better and protect American lives.

And, finally, I’m ordering an immediate effort to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to our terrorist watch lists, especially the no-fly list. We must do better in keeping dangerous people off airplanes, while still facilitating air travel.

KWAME HOLMAN: The security problems the president outlined today have caused political headaches for the White House. There’s been criticism of his national security team, especially Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who initially said the system worked in the airliner incident.

Today, though, the president made no mention of firing anyone.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, at this stage in the review process it appears that this incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies.

Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer, for 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, the administration’s top counterterror adviser, John Brennan, addressed what went wrong.

JOHN BRENNAN, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser: This was not a failure to collect or share intelligence. It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we had. We didn’t follow up and prioritize a stream of intelligence indicating that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike our homeland because no one intelligence entity or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation.

The intelligence fell through the cracks. This happened in more than one organization.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brennan concluded by conceding the enormous challenges the national security team faces.

JOHN BRENNAN: In every instance over the past year, the intelligence community, the homeland security community, the law enforcement community has done an absolutely outstanding and stellar job in protecting this homeland and disrupting plots that have directed against us. It was in this one instance that we did not rise to that same level of competence and success. And therefore the president has told us that we must do better. I told the president today, I let him down. I am the president’s assistant for homeland security and counter-terrorism, and I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary Napolitano announced the deployment of at least 300 advanced imaging scanners at U.S. airports, but she also said it’s still difficult physically to screen passengers coming from overseas.

One new proposal: a system for fast-tracking names on to a terrorist watch list. Abdulmutallab was on a watch list, but his was just one of more than half-a-million names.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing. Today, government officials in Yemen said Abdulmutallab originally was recruited in London.

The Yemeni deputy prime minister said the suspect met with al-Qaida operatives in Shabwa Province, and that meeting may have included the radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He’s also been linked to the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre.

Abdulmutallab currently is being held at a federal prison in Michigan. He was indicted yesterday for attempted murder and other crimes.