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Obama: Intelligence Failures Allowed Attempted Plane Attack

January 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama told U.S. security chiefs Tuesday that an attempted airliner bomb attack was the result of a "screw up" by intelligence agencies and that he won't tolerate it. Jim Lehrer gets reaction on the president's remarks and U.S. efforts to fight terrorism from experts.

JIM LEHRER: We get three other perspectives now from Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation at George Mason University — he’s also a professor of public policy there — Steven Simon, former terrorism specialist at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration — he’s now with the Council on Foreign Relations — and Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration. He’s now director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program.

Mr. Ervin, just a few moments ago, the White House issued a statement, or issued a statement that the president reportedly said to his folks that he met with, in other words, his team, his 12 folks that were there, and he — he — the president said this — quote — “This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet, but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked. And that is not acceptable. While there will be a tendency to finger-pointing, I will not tolerate it.”

What do you make of that?

CLARK KENT ERVIN, former inspector general, Department of Homeland Security: I think that’s absolutely spot on.

The president was exactly right to say that. He has said essentially in the public statement. You can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge it. And the president has said this before. This was a systemic failure. It is the first impulse of government always to downplay crises. That was the first impulse here with the Department of Homeland Security.

And, so, the president is quite right. And the sense of urgency that he conveyed is also important. And, most importantly, to say that it was a failure to connect the dots, we created four entities after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, TSA, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, the director of national intelligence, and, most importantly, the National Counterterrorism Center, precisely to make sure that we do connect the dots in the future.

We had the necessary information to prevent this plot, but it was thanks to passengers, as the president said, and not our own government, that this plot was foiled.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Simon, how do you read the president’s term “I will not tolerate this”? He has said before it’s unacceptable and whatever, but he hasn’t said, “I will not tolerate.”

What does that mean? How should that be read?

STEVEN SIMON, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I think he’s doing a couple of things. First, he is in an adversarial political context in which it’s very important for him to show resolve, because the other side is saying that, actually, he showed insufficient resolve.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the Republicans?

STEVEN SIMON: The Republicans, absolutely.


STEVEN SIMON: Secondly, he’s got to send a message to the national security bureaucracy that they have really got to be careful in the future.

And, secondly, he’s sending a message of reassurance to the American people that this very near miss registered on the White House screen, and they understand it was a problem, and they’re going to do something about it.

So, I think the message was clear, but it was intended for three audiences.


Do you agree? There are three audiences here, at least?

KENNETH BUTTON, George Mason University: Oh, I think there’s at least three audiences. The fourth is the international audience as well.

The president really has to address two major audiences, the U.S. people. He’s the president of the United States. And, of course, the United States is a world power. Americans travel throughout the world, and foreign citizens come to this country.

I was rather disappointed when he didn’t mention the fact that there were not only Americans on that flight to Detroit. You have a bomb go off in this country on a plane, you’re killing foreign nationals as well.

And I think he was sending a message that the U.S. may perhaps take a stronger leadership role in counterterrorism. It does seem to have fallen back recently and become I think slightly defensive is a — probably a good word. And I think he’s reassuring perhaps the world community, as well as the American population.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the bureaucracy of the U.S. government?

KENNETH BUTTON: Well, the bureaucracy is difficult. Bureaucracies do tend to have failings. They inevitably are not perfect. And people talk about having a totally safe airline system or totally safe transportation system. That’s simply not possible.

On this occasion, I think the system did fail exactly the way he pointed out. There was information there. It was handled badly. You find out why that happened. You make sure it doesn’t happen again. And you also look forward, because the terrorists will be playing games with you. And you have to look forward to ways they’re going to try and tweak the system, get around the system in the future.

And I think that’s the real challenge for the security people.

JIM LEHRER: And, Mr. Ervin, right after 9/11, the same words were spoken: This — we must do things now to make sure this never happens again.

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Precisely. Jim, it’s so reminiscent of 9/11. The NSA collected information. It was not translated and the significance was not grasped until September 12.

The CIA had watch-listed two of the hijackers, not shared with the State Department. Had it been, presumably, their visas would have been denied, once those hijackers came to the country, not shared with the FBI. Had it been, the FBI presumably could have tracked them down because they were living under their own names in San Diego in the phone book.

Similarly, here, as the president said again today, the NSA intercepted messages saying that a terror attack was being planned in Yemen using a Nigerian. In this instance, the suspect’s own father, not just anybody, but a respected Nigerian banker, went to the State Department, not once, but twice, talked not to just the State Department, but also the Central Intelligence Agency, and then followed up with telephone calls and with written communication.

And, as the president said, that was enough, at a minimum, to get him on the no-fly list, in which case he wouldn’t have boarded the flight at all.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Simon, you have — you know this. You have worked in government. You watch it for — as a career. And you’re a specialist in this particular area.

Do you leave the words for the president — hearing the words of the president with a sense of confidence, now, finally, they’re going to get their act together and we’re going to stop this, and they’re going to stop connecting — they’re going to start connecting the dots, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, look, this case was complicated by the fact that, under the way we use intelligence, Abdulmutallab’s father really didn’t give the system what the system needed to move, to move expeditiously.

Normally, a walk-in to the embassy who provides information on a suspected terrorist is not going to be put at the top of the queue unless he’s imparting some actionable intelligence, which means something really specific. And this man wasn’t.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But — but let’s move it to the next step.

If something similar happens today because of what almost happened over the landing in Detroit, this will not — this will be averted because of the fact that the president is moving and the United States government is moving and the world is moving?

You don’t — I don’t think your answer says yes.

STEVEN SIMON: Well, see, what’s going to happen now is that the threshold for reporting this kind of information and for allocating a lot of attention to this information, this sort of information, is going to go way up, which means that the people whose job it is to interpret it, analyze it, and assess its significance, their job is just going to be more difficult by an order of magnitude.

JIM LEHRER: When in doubt, put them on the watch list. When in doubt, put them on the watch list.

STEVEN SIMON: Oh, well, of course. If you were in an embassy at this point and somebody came in and said, you know, my son is hanging out with the wrong people, and, you know, he’s taken a real anti-American line, and I’m not really happy about this, and I think you should watch him, well, you know, you’re going to send a flash cable to Washington, saying, we have got to do something about this guy.


You agree that things are going to happen, Mr. Button? I mean, do you agree they are going to be the right things?

KENNETH BUTTON: Well, things are going to happen.


KENNETH BUTTON: And I think the point about this case was, the bomber basically had a visa. And it’s not too difficult to check someone who has a visa and, in that sense, pull him out.

JIM LEHRER: Well, it really — let me stop you there. It really isn’t. You can go to — there are data banks within the U.S. government that has the name of everybody who has a visa, right?

KENNETH BUTTON: Exactly. Exactly. So, you get some report. There’s nothing to hold that visa back while you check. You can be safe, rather than sorry, in a sense. I’m surprised they didn’t do that.

I think one of the dangers of the current situation, though, is we’re moving a lot towards focusing on the aviation sector, because that’s where recent events have occurred. And we’re trying to stop foreign nationals coming into the country who are undesirable.

The big danger, it seems to me, is, you could get complacent about domestic terrorism or sleeper cells within the country. And in many places outside of America, the standard method of terrorism is not to attack the airlines. I’m obviously English. We have bus bombs. We have bombs on the metro system.

We have the situation in Tokyo, where we had gas pumped into subway systems. I think the situation is rather more complicated than simply handling foreign nationals which are coming into the country and collecting intelligence on them.

There’s a lot more intelligence out there which we have not heard about, which needs to be dealt with.

JIM LEHRER: But isn’t — to pick up on that with Mr. Ervin, that said, what Mr. Button just said, the fact of the matter is, it’s an airplane incident that we just had, not another one of these kinds of incidents that you were talking about.

So, is that — that’s still going to be the focus, is it not?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, unfortunately, yes.

I say unfortunately because we do have this tendency, which we suffer from, to always fight the last war. This was an airline attack. Therefore, we’re going to redouble our efforts in the aviation sector. We have done more already in the aviation sector than any other, because that’s how 9/11 happened again.

I think he’s right to say that there are also vulnerabilities in the maritime sector, mass transit sector, and we need to focus on those as well.

JIM LEHRER: But, meanwhile, do you have a feeling of confidence now? You have been involved in this also in the government right after 9/11. And you were involved in this very piece of work.


JIM LEHRER: Do you think, oh, now they’re going to get it?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, Jim, I’m getting there.

The president said the right things, point one. And he’s already taken a number of steps in terms of terror watch lists, as he mentioned, and in terms of enhanced screening procedures. And there are more to come, as he also said today.

But the one thing he didn’t talk about today is accountability. We have not yet heard whether any individual in the bureaucracy who didn’t connect the dots is going to be held accountable for it by losing his or her job. And that needs to happen.

JIM LEHRER: That does need to happen? Somebody should be fired for what happened on Christmas Day?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: You know, this whole phrase that we got from the Nixon administration, mistakes were made — well, mistakes were made by people. And unless and until people are held accountable for those mistakes, the mistakes will continue to be made.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree somebody should be fired for what happened on Christmas Day?

KENNETH BUTTON: Well, I go back before Nixon to Truman and the buck stops here. Someone has to be accountable.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Simon, do you agree?

STEVEN SIMON: I think you would find that people did their jobs.

They had intelligence that was of an ambiguous nature. It was put in the track that ambiguous information is put into.

The dots…

JIM LEHRER: So, don’t fire anybody?

STEVEN SIMON: The dots would have been connected eventually.

JIM LEHRER: Eventually, but — OK.

Quickly, starting with you, Mr. Simon, is the president right on the no Yemenis from Guantanamo back to Yemen?

STEVEN SIMON: I don’t think there are going to be any Yemenis going back there.

JIM LEHRER: So, I mean, he’s right to say that?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, one of the Yemenis who went back happens to be at the head of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is the group that we’re really worried about. So…

JIM LEHRER: Enough — enough said?


JIM LEHRER: Mr. Button?

KENNETH BUTTON: Exactly the same. I think public confidence demands they stay at least in some form of security detention.

JIM LEHRER: Kind of an automatic decision, Mr. Ervin?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Absolutely. It was inevitable. There’s no question but the president had to say that: We’re going to suspend the repatriations to Yemen for the foreseeable future.

If I could just briefly disagree with my friend Steve…

JIM LEHRER: Sure. You may.

CLARK KENT ERVIN: … intelligence is always ambiguous. It doesn’t get any clearer than it was here. And unless we connect dots in this instance, heaven help us in future cases.

JIM LEHRER: You still don’t want to fire anybody, Mr. Simon?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, it — the thing is, it is so often ambiguous. And Clark is absolutely right about that. But it does get less ambiguous.

And, if Mr. Abdulmutallab had come in to the embassy and said, listen, my son wants to blow up an airplane, and he wants it to be a Christmas present to the American people, and I know he’s really serious about this, and he gave the names of some of his son’s associates, it would have been different.

JIM LEHRER: But isn’t that more than a little dot? That would — I mean, that would be a huge…

STEVEN SIMON: No, it’s a big dot, but there are walk-ins who do come into embassies with that kind of information.

JIM LEHRER: OK. OK. We will leave it there.

Gentlemen, thank you all very, very much.