After emerging from a nearly two hour meeting in the Situation Room with his national security team, President Obama today said that while the information was there to disrupt the attempted Christmas Day attack, the intelligence community failed to connect the dots in a “potentially disastrous way.”
“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,” Obama said from the Grand Foyer this afternoon, “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.”
The president used a version of the word "fail" 9 times in as many minutes -- and he was talking about his government failing to adequately protect the American people.
Mr. Obama said that while he accepts intelligence “by its nature is imperfect” that it is clear that the intelligence was “not fully analyzed or fully leveraged,” which the President said is “not acceptable.”
“I will not tolerate it,” he added, “when a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way. And it's my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future.”
The President held an intense meeting in the Situation Room this afternoon where he pressed his national security team on how Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab was able to board Northwest Airlines flight 253.
According to a White House official President Obama told his national security team, "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."
Obama also privately told his team that "While there will be a tendency for finger pointing, I will not tolerate it."
The President received an update from Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on aviation screening, technology and procedures. Counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, John Brennan, gave an update to the review into the terrorist watch listing system.
“This ongoing review continues to reveal more about the human and systemic failures that almost cost nearly 300 lives,” Mr. Obama said, adding that the summary of the preliminary reports will be made public within the next few days.
The President said that the review showed that elements of the intelligence community knew that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen and joined up with extremists there and that the 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.
“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.”
The President told his national security team today that he wants their initial reviews completed this week, with 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. And I know that every member of my team that I met with today understands the urgency of getting this right, and I appreciate that each of them took responsibility for the shortfalls within their own agencies.”
The President summarized “concrete steps” that he took immediately following the attempted attack to protect those flying -- more explosive detection teams at airports, more air marshals on flights and deepening cooperation with international partners.
The President said they’ve also taken additional steps to improve security, including adding more individuals to the no fly list which needs to be strengthened.
“Counterterrorism officials have reviewed and updated our terrorist watch list system, including adding more individuals to the no-fly list. And while our review has found that our watch-listing system is not broken, the failure to add Abdulmutallab to the no-fly list shows that this system needs to be strengthened.”
The State Department is now requiring embassies and consulates to include current visa information in their warning on individuals with terrorist or suspected terrorist connections, Obama said, and the TSA is now requiring enhanced screening for passengers flying into the United States from or flying through nations on our list of state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest.
The President said in the days ahead he will announce further steps to disrupt attacks, “including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel.”
Mr. Obama confirmed that there will be no additional transfers of Guantanamo Bay detainees to Yemen at this time.
“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've spoken to the attorney general and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.”
The President said that his decision to close Guantanamo still remains.
“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've always said, we will do so -- we will close the prison in a manner that keeps the American people safe and secure.”
-Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller