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Obama takes responsibility for airline security

'Ultimately, the buck stops with me,' the president says, calling for more vigilance and better use of a terrorist watch list.

January 07, 2010|By Michael Muskal and Christi Parsons | Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington

President Obama today accepted responsibility for improving airline security and intelligence gathering as he outlined a series of failures that allowed an alleged bomber to board and try to destroy a jetliner bound for the United States on Christmas.

In televised comments, the president released a declassified investigation outlining what went wrong in the incident that ended safely but became a political firestorm. Obama called for more vigilance, recommending changes in airline security as well as better use of a government watch list designed to let authorities know about potential terrorists.

"Ultimately, the buck stops with me," he said. He said he wanted the intelligence community to assign "clear lines of responsibility" for immediately pursuing leads on those threats.

As he has before, the president said the Christmas incident showed a failure to connect the dots. The intelligence community did not aggressively follow up on threats coming from an Al Qaeda group in Yemen and there was a failure of analysis, and those shortcomings exposed problems with the watch list for terrorists, the president said.

Obama called for four steps including better analysis to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to no-fly list.

"We must do better," the president insisted.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, has been charged with attempted murder and other crimes in connection with the airline incident. Authorities said he smuggled a device onto the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas.

The device was ignited but did not detonate. Passengers and crew subdued Abdulmutallab, and the plane landed safely.

In a summary of the review released as the president was speaking, examiners found that "human errors" as well as a "series of systematic breakdowns" prevented the intelligence network from detecting the threat before Abdulmutallab boarded the plane.

The intelligence network had all the information it needed to do so, the report states, but "leadership" of the intelligence community did not increase analytic resources working on the full threat posed by Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

That is owed to a "breakdown of accountability for threat warning and response," according to the report, which suggests that the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center have "primary and overlapping responsibility" to analyze all sources of intelligence.

Watch list personnel had access to additional "derogatory information" in databases that could have been connected to Abdulmutallab, but that access did not result in their uncovering biographical information that would have been necessary to place him on the watch list.

"Intelligence fell through the cracks," John O. Brennan, Obama's director of counter-terrorism, said during a briefing immediately following the president's remarks. "I told the president today that I let him down," Brennan said. "I told him that I will do better, and that we will do better as a team."

After the Christmas incident, the administration first minimized the problems, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying the security system worked. They later said their remarks were taken out of context after Republicans complained that the system had failed.

Obama, who was on vacation in Hawaii over the holidays, acknowledged that there had been security lapses. In the following days he toughened his language, saying there had been systemic and human errors and that the intelligence community had failed to connect the dots of available information.

The president ordered an investigation into how Abdulmutallab had brought the device through security and on to the flight. Obama also ordered his administration to look at how the security watch list system worked.

Abdulmutallab's father had told the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that he believed his son had become radicalized by exposure to an Al Qaeda-associated group in Yemen. The son was listed on a database of suspected terrorists, one of about 550,000 names. He was never moved to a stricter no-fly listing of about 3,400 names and his visa to the United States was never lifted.

He was, however, flagged for additional questioning by Customs and Border Protection officials who would have questioned Adbulmutallab on his landing in Detroit.

Politically, Republicans are expected to continue to question the administration's handling of the incident, broadening the issue to include how to deal with detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The U.S. has suspended returning detainees to Yemen.

Some conservatives have called for the dismissal of members of the Obama administration who may have erred in dealing with the Christmas Day incident.

"I don't know what the final outcome in terms of hiring and firing will be," Gibbs told reporters this week.

The latest official caught in the net of criticism is National Counterterrorism Director Michael Leiter. He was at his headquarters on Christmas after the terrorist attempt, but went on a planned family vacation the next day. Leiter was in regular, extended classified discussions with the White House, national security staff, and other key leaders during the break, officials said.

Several Senate hearings on the Christmas incident have been scheduled.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

cparsons@latimes.com

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