President Obama delivered a sharp critique of his national security team's performance in keeping the air travel system safe from al Qaida terror, saying the measures designed to protect Americans had "failed in a potentially disastrous way" and contributed to a Christmas Day terror attack that "almost cost more than 300 lives."
Obama's remarks, delivered Tuesday after an afternoon meeting with his national security staff, departed markedly in both tone and substance from those of John Brennan, his assistant for homeland security.
Brennan told Fox News Sunday: "There was no smoking gun. There was no piece of intelligence that said, 'This guy's a terrorist. He's going to get on a place.' No, not whatsoever."
Obama offered a quite different take, saying: "The bottom line is this: The U.S. government had sufficient information to uncover 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."
The president announced he has ordered Brennan to conduct a thorough review of how suspects are placed on the terrorism watch list "so we can fix what went wrong."
He also directed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to review aviation screening procedures.
"This was not a failure to collect intelligence," Obama declared. "It was a failure to integrate … the intelligence we already had."
Response to the speech was mixed. Pundits generally applauded the president's frank admission that security blunders had occurred. But conservatives detected an effort to pin the blame on the intelligence system.
Ron Kessler, Newsmax senior Washington correspondent, commented that Obama could not absolve himself of all responsibility for the nearly disastrous blunder, which allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, a jihadist with an explosive device hidden in his underwear, to board a U.S.-bound aircraft in Amsterdam.
"Clearly, more should have been done to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together more quickly," Kessler said. "But the biggest and most clear-cut failure was the fact that Abdulmuttallab was not placed on the no-fly list or at least on the list to receive more scrutiny, after his distinguished father said he had fallen in with Islamic radicals. I attribute that failure to a risk-averse atmosphere Obama has created in the intelligence community."
Syndicated columnist and security expert Andrew McCarthy, writing for the National Review, said the president's treatment of the intelligence community had contributed to its shortcomings.
"Our intelligence agencies performed horribly here, and their statements since the news broke do not inspire confidence about their handle on the zillion threats we haven't heard about," McCarthy wrote. "But is Obama in any position to complain about that? He's spent the last year allowing intelligence officers to be investigated criminally, portraying them as rogues, accusing them of war crimes, removing them from the interrogation equation, and rebuffing calls to disclose to the public how effective their post-9/11 intelligence gathering was.
"If you create a climate in which pursuing and connecting dots is likely to get you in a heap of hurt, how surprised should you be that we've become lax in dot pursuit and connection?" McCarthy said.
Addressing the administration's decision to prosecute the suspect criminally rather than interrogate him, McCarthy added: "If the president really wants dots connected, why doesn't he just declare Abdulmutallab an unlawful enemy combatant and interrogate him like one?"
Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security analyst for the Heritage Foundation, told Newsmax that the president "gave a very good synopsis of what most of America already knows – that the system failed."
She added: "What I think was lacking was a clear communication of his administration's priorities and plan for making sure it doesn't happen again."
The president did list the precautions he had implemented since the attack, including more air marshals, the addition of new names to the "no-fly" list of those banned from flights on U.S. aircraft, and additional security precautions for passengers arriving from "countries of interest" where security may be lax or terrorism more prevalent.
Obama stated that further changes would be announced in the days ahead. And while he confirmed repatriation of Yemenis held at the Guantanamo facility to their native country would be suspended, he has no intention of wavering in his plan to eventually close Guantanamo. Abdulmuttallab had traveled to Yemen for training on how to carry out his attack.
Obama's remarks Tuesday appeared designed to communicate how seriously he views the security breach.
His two previous statements on the matter, delivered from Hawaii where he was vacationing with his family over the holidays, were widely criticized as cerebral, rather than impassioned.
On Tuesday, Obama spoke from notes and without the apparent aid of a teleprompter. He stumbled, as have many commentators, over the name of terror suspect Abdulmuttallab. But the president communicated clearly that he will not accept excuses for Americans being left vulnerable.
"In short," he concluded, "we need our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement systems, and the people in them to be accountable and to work as intended … not just most of the time, but all of the time. That's what the American people deserve. And as president, that is exactly what I will demand."
Those remarks triggered immediate speculation in the media, and in the Beltway's corridors of power, over which top security officials were most at risk of losing their jobs over the security lapse, which allowed a Nigerian with known terrorist inclinations, with an explosive device hidden in his underwear, to board a Detroit-bound Northwest airline flight.
Abdulmuttallab paid for his ticket in cash and did not check luggage. Also, he used the exact bomb technique that Saudi Arabian officials had warned the administration about in October, after an explosion nearly claimed the life of a Saudi prince.
After the speech, CNN senior political analyst Gloria Bolger remarked: "I think it's very clear this is a president who believes that the system wasn't working, and there are some folks to blame here because he said there were red flags, and we did not follow up on these red flags. … We've been asking the question will heads roll. I think at some point, maybe not tomorrow or the day after, but you're going to see some changes in leadership."
Fran Townsend, Brennan's predecessor in the Bush administration, said the president was singling out the intelligence analysis function. That is the primary responsibility of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), whose core mission has been defined by Congress as "Leading our nation's effort to combat terrorism at home and abroad by analyzing the threat, sharing that information with our partners, and integrating all instruments of national power to ensure unity of effort."
"He was as explicit as he could be," said Townsend. "He actually even went so far as to say, 'We collected the dots, this time we had the information.' The failure, he clearly pinned it on the NCTC, whose job it is to pull it together."
McNeill told Newsmax it would be a mistake to concentrating on finding scapegoats, adding, "What I would rather see is a focus on leadership -- both at the highest, White House levels and among the agencies -- to really drive down to Homeland Security personnel throughout the Executive Branch the importance of recognizing actionable intelligence, sharing this information, and making sure bad guys don’t carry out attacks."
Obama emphasized that stopping the al Qaida threat is "a challenge of the utmost urgency."
He added government agencies must act "on intelligence as quickly and efficiently as possible to save lives, not just most of the time, but all of the time."
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