Obama: Airline attack was preventable
President says intelligence officials ‘failed to connect the dots’
Image: Barack Obama
Pete Souza / The White House via AP
In this image released by the White House, President Barack Obama meets with his national security team in the Situation Room of the White House Tuesday.
Obama reprimands intelligence failures
Jan. 5: The president delivered a stern message to his security team. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
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Jan. 5: As the Al-Qaida threat in Yemen grows, the Obama administration said Tuesday that it is suspending the repatriation of Yemen detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
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updated 2 hours, 12 minutes ago
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama asserted on Tuesday that the U.S. government had enough information to foil the attempted bombing on a Christmas Day airline flight but intelligence agencies "failed to connect the dots."
Obama called that unacceptable and said, "I will not tolerate it."
The accused attacker, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has claimed ties to al-Qaida. Witnesses said he ignited an explosive mixture but it failed to do serious damage to the Northwest jetliner or its passengers, and he was subdued by other passengers and airline crew members on the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
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The president, speaking after meeting with his Cabinet and national security team, declared, "We have to do better and we will do better. And we will do it quickly."
But while he expressed clear displeasure with the U.S. failure to prevent the suspect from boarding a U.S.-bound flight, Obama did not announce any firings or job reassignments.
Obama also said he was suspending the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. The Christmas attack has raised concerns about Yemen, because the Nigerian man has claimed to have been acting on instructions from al-Qaida operatives in that country.
Nearly half of the 198 terror suspect detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are from Yemen. But Obama reiterated his vow to eventually close the camp.
"Make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo prison," Obama said. The camp, he said, "was an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaida" operating in Yemen.
As for the Christmas attack, Obama said it exposed "a potentially disastrous" security failure.
He spoke after a White House meeting with the officials charged with carrying out two reviews he has ordered. Obama spelled out recent changes in security protocols for airline flights and changes to the government's watchlist of suspected terrorists.
Obama pushes plan to tighten airline security
Jan. 5: President Barack Obama promised to lay out further steps to safeguard aviation security in the coming weeks. NBC's Tom Costello reports.
At the meeting in the Situation Room, the president told participants, according to the White House: "This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet but just barely."
There was no finger-pointing at the meeting and the leaders of each agency and department took responsibility for failures at their respective organizations, officials said.
Obama told reporters the security lapse didn't have to do with the collection of information but with the failure to integrate and analyze what was there. The bottom line, he said was that the government had "sufficient information to uncover this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack."
"Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list," he said. "This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already have."
Obama said that it was clear the government knew that the suspect, Abdulmutallab, had traveled to Yemen and joined 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 we now know was in fact the individual involved in the Christmas attack," he said.
New security procedures
Some of the tougher procedures Obama demanded have already been put in place.
The Transportation Security Administration directed airlines, beginning Monday, to give full-body, pat-down searches to U.S.-bound travelers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries.
Before Obama's comments, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still has full confidence in his three top national security officials: Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
They were among the 20 high-level officials who sat down with Obama in the White House for a meeting that lasted over 90 minutes.
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Since the attempted attack, the government has added dozens of names to its lists of suspected terrorists and those barred from flights bound for the United States.
The additions came after U.S. officials scrutinized a larger database of suspected terrorists, an intelligence official said Monday.
People on the watch list are subject to additional scrutiny before they are allowed to enter this country, while anyone on the no-fly list is barred from boarding aircraft in or headed for the United States.
Abdulmutallab remained in federal custody, charged with trying to destroy the Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit. He is alleged to have smuggled an explosive device onboard and set if off. The device sparked only a fire and not the intended explosion.
Terror attempt: Unanswered questions
After initially answering questions from the FBI, alleged 'underwear bomber' Umar Abdulmutallab stopped talking. Here are some of the questions investigators are still working to answer.
• Why did he buy a ticket for a flight to Detroit?
• What was he doing before he came to the U.S.?
• Why did he spend 20 minutes in the airplane bathroom?
• What was the exact nature of his explosive device?
• Why didn't the explosive device work?
Investigators have not come up with an answer, but some theorize that when Abdulmutallab bought his ticket, on December 16, it was one of the few Christmas holiday flights to the U.S. with aisle seats available over the wing. He apparently wanted to sit in those seats, presumably because he believed that an explosion there would produce greater damage. Federal officials say he chose his seat, 19A, rather than having it assigned to him by the reservation computers.
Source: NBC's Pete Williams