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U.S. counter-terrorism official cites human error in airliner safety lapse

John Brennan denies that infighting in the intelligence community is at fault and says there is no 'smoking gun' that would have pointed to the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

January 04, 2010|By Jim Tankersley

Reporting from Washington — President Obama's leading counter-terrorism advisor said Sunday that human error, not turf battles among federal intelligence officials, allowed an Al Qaeda-trained operative to carry out an attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound passenger plane on Christmas Day.

Deputy national security advisor John Brennan, in appearances on several morning television news programs, also said there was "no smoking gun" of intelligence gathered by American officials that would have directly suggested that the Flight 253 attack, allegedly carried out by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was imminent.

"There was no piece of intelligence that said, 'This guy's a terrorist. He's going to get on a plane,' " Brennan said. Later, he added: "It was the failure to integrate and piece together those bits and pieces of information."

Brennan is leading the Obama-ordered review of intelligence-gathering and watch-listing efforts, which failed to block Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, from boarding the plane despite several red flags known to U.S. officials -- including a personal warning from Abdulmutallab's father that the young man was displaying extremist tendencies.

Brennan said the review had so far yielded no evidence that various agencies withheld that intelligence from one another, as was the case with rival agencies in the lead-up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There is no indication whatsoever that any agency or department was not trying to share information" on Abdulmutallab, Brennan said. There were "some lapses. There was some human error."

Brennan defended the sophistication of the government's anti-terrorism system after one interviewer questioned whether it could stack up to Facebook, the popular Internet social networking site.

More broadly, he defended the Obama administration's anti-terrorism efforts, including its decision to charge Abdulmutallab in criminal court and its plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He said Obama still would consider returning ex-Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen. About 90 Yemenis are still held at the facility, he said.

Brennan spoke on "Fox News Sunday," CNN's "State of the Union," ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press."

In several instances, he was followed by congressional Republicans who criticized his comments and the administration's national security policies.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, said on Fox that he was "very disturbed" that Obama would consider releasing Guantanamo detainees to any other country, in light of reports that several Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen were former Guantanamo prisoners released during the Bush administration.

"If we don't stop the practice of releasing Gitmo detainees to Yemen or to other countries . . . we're asking for even more trouble," Bond said.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Brennan "seems to have a hard time saying [the bombing attempt] was an act of terror."

"This threat is real," DeMint said on CNN, "and we need to make some very real changes."

Other Republicans were more measured. On CNN, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, praised Obama's reaction to the Flight 253 attack. But he said it was clear that until Christmas, the administration was "distracted" by healthcare, the economy, global warming and other issues and not "focused as it should be on terrorism."

In his interviews, Brennan rebutted one Republican charge repeatedly: former Vice President Dick Cheney's accusation last week that Obama was "trying to pretend" that the United States was not at war with terrorists.

Cheney was either "willfully mischaracterizing" Obama's position, Brennan said, or "ignorant of the facts."

The administration, he said, is "determined to destroy Al Qaeda, whether it's in Pakistan, Afghanistan or in Yemen. We will get there."

jtankersley@latimes.com

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