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Obama: U.S. ‘Failed to Connect the Dots’ in Bomb Plot

January 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama said Tuesday the U.S. had sufficient information to disrupt the Christmas Day plot to blow up a U.S. airliner, but "failed to connect the dots." Ray Suarez interviews Chief of Staff for the National Security Council Denis McDonough about intelligence miscues.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama has made his latest statement on the airliner bomb plot. He outlined findings this afternoon from security reviews he ordered after the Christmas Day incident in Detroit.

Here is some of what the president said at the White House.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I described over the weekend, elements of our intelligence community knew that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen and joined up with extremists there.

It now turns out that our intelligence community knew of other red flags that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike not only American targets in Yemen, but the United States itself. And we had information that this group was working with an individual who was known — who we now know was in fact the individual involved in the Christmas attack.

The bottom line is this: The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.

In other words, this was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. The information was there, agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it, and our professionals were trained to look for it and to bring it all together.

Now, I will accept that intelligence by its nature is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.

Time and again we’ve learned that quickly piecing together information and taking swift action is critical to staying one step ahead of a nimble adversary. So we have to do better, and we will do better, and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.

So I made it clear today to my team I want our initial reviews completed this week. I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong. I want those reforms implemented immediately so that this doesn’t happen again and so we can prevent future attacks.

Some have suggested that the events on Christmas Day should cause us to revisit the decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So let me be clear.

It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected.

With respect to Yemen in particular, there’s an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time, along with our Yemeni partner.

Given the unsettled situation, I have spoken to the attorney general and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.

But make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaida. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

And as I have always said, we will do so — we will close the prison in a manner that keeps the American people safe and secure.

As these violent extremists pursue new havens, we intend to target al-Qaida wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary, as we are doing currently with the government in Yemen.

As our adversaries seek new recruits, we’ll constantly review and rapidly update our intelligence and our institutions. As they refine our tactics, we’ll enhance our defenses, including smarter screening and security at airports, investing in the technologies that might have detected the kind of explosives used on Christmas.

In short, we need our intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement systems and the people in them to be accountable and to work as intended — collecting, sharing, integrating, analyzing and acting on intelligence as quickly and effectively as possible to save innocent lives, not just most of the time, but all of the time. That’s what the American people deserve. As president, that’s exactly what I will demand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on today’s meeting and what comes next from the Obama administration, here’s Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: And, for that, we are joined by Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of the National Security Council.

Welcome to the program.

Just a while ago, we heard the president refer to this, not as a failure to collect, but as a failure to integrate. Was it one that just involved the accused man trying to bring down that jetliner heading for Detroit, or were intelligence agencies routinely not comparing, not cross-referencing their information?

DENIS MCDONOUGH, chief of staff, National Security Council: Ray, thanks a lot for the opportunity to join you.

Look, I think, if you look back over the course of the last year, and, frankly, over the course of the last many years, I think, if anybody would have taken a bet after 9/11 and said that it would be many, many years before you see another successful attack, I think a lot of people would have taken that bet.

I think the fact that we have been as successful as we have been, including this year, against Najibullah Zazi, against David Coleman Headley, against the five guys who went to Pakistan, I think this is an example of — those are all examples of the good, hard work, coordination, sharing, analysis, correlation of the kind of information that we have now come to expect from our intel community.

So, in an instance like this, where, as the president indicated, it’s a systemic failure, we had come to expect such regular success, that it really stands out. But I think what you saw in the meeting today, what I saw in the meeting today, was a whole host of agencies eager to work together, eager to learn lessons from this, to up our game, as each of them said. And that’s exactly what we expect to do.

RAY SUAREZ: The president referred to speed and talked about quickly closing these gaps in the cross-referencing of information. He said the intelligence was not leveraged. Can you do that quickly?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: You can do that quickly, but I think he’s referring to a number of things.

He saw this attack obviously on Christmas Day, which, through serendipity, failed, as we now know, and what he wanted to do is address the shortcomings with urgency. That’s why John Brennan and a number of people in each of these agencies have worked overtime throughout the holidays to make sure that we understand just where the gaps were.

But now we want to address them with agility, with alacrity, as the president has indicated. And you can do that quickly. Not only do you — do we believe we can, but we have seen very many instances like the ones I outlined before where we have.

And, frankly, we believe that we must. And, so, we’re going to keep the pressure on al-Qaida central, as it is, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’re also going to continue to keep the pressure on al-Qaida affiliates, including in Yemen, in Somalia, in Southeast Asia, and obviously keep our eye on the target here with threats at home.

So, we’re going to continue to do that. We think we can do it with speed, but we also know we must do it with speed.

RAY SUAREZ: The president referred to the countries that have been asked to up their security for flights that may end up approaching the United States. Can the United States or aviation agencies compel them to up their security, or is there an aspect of voluntary compliance here?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, look, I think there’s a recognition across the board that this is a threat we want to confront collectively. We know that we want to work together. Obviously, international travel is something that, by its nature, is going to require partnership and cooperation. And, frankly, we know that al-Qaida is looking for new opportunities to target us and our allies and our friends. Frankly, you have a movement here that’s killed more Muslims than, frankly, people of any other faith. So, we’re going to have to draw on our friends, not only in Europe and South and Central America and Asia, but also our friends in the Muslim world, including in North Africa, in the Middle East and in South Asia. So, we believe that we don’t really need to compel our friends to cooperate with us, because I think we uniformly recognize that this is a shared threat.

The president took the opportunity to both assert that he will stay on track with closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and at the same time said that Yemenis won’t be released and sent home. Help us square those two aspects of the policy.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, as you know, Ray, all along, we have been going through each of these cases of individuals down at Guantanamo Bay detention facility with a fine-tooth comb, addressing them individually on a case-by-case basis, making sure that those we can — that we can transfer in a way that will advance our interests and protect the United States, we do that, obviously, under the right conditions and the right circumstances.

As the president said today and as he discussed with the attorney general, the current situation on the ground in Yemen is not the right circumstances. So, he wanted to send that clear signal. But we will continue to prosecute those cases as we put them together, as he has announced and as the attorney general has announced on a number of occasions.

But the bottom line is this. We have to take a step back and recognize that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is a principal recruiting tool for al-Qaida and its allies. We have known that for some time. And, as the president pointed out today, al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula even used it as a motivation and recruiting tool from day one of the formation of its organization.

So, the bottom line is we recognize the challenge here. But we’re going to address it front on, as the president has any number of issues throughout the course of this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Denis McDonough is the chief of staff of the National Security Council. Thanks for being with us.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thank you, Ray.