President Obama has acknowledged that the United States had early signals that a terrorist attack was being plotted in Yemen and failed to take adequate steps to prevent it.
According to a page one story in the New York Times, two federal officials told the paper that U.S. intelligence was aware that a Nigerian Muslim was preparing an attack, yet officials did nothing to give warning of such an attack.
The paper reported Wednesday: "Two officials said the government had intelligence from Yemen before Friday that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda were talking about 'a Nigerian' being prepared for a terrorist attack."
Although the attacker was not named, officials said his identity would have been evident had it been compared with information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an American passenger jet on Christmas Day.
But despite those signals, the administration never raised a terror alert, and would-be bomber Abdulmutallab was allowed to board a plane bound for the United States.
Critics also have charged that, although al-Qaida has engaged in multiple terror attacks at the same time and has promised more attacks soon, the administration has yet to raise Homeland Security's terror threat level. It remains at "yellow" or "elevated" — as it has for several years.
Obama was told at a briefing on Tuesday that U.S. officials had information that would have warned clearly of a pending attack if agencies had shared the information, The New York Times reported.
U.S. intelligence learned that leaders of a branch of al-Qaida in Yemen were talking about a Nigerian's being prepared for a terrorist attack.
Abdulmutallab first came to the attention of U.S. officials in November, when his father told the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that his son had expressed radical views and then disappeared.
After being briefed, Obama told reporters: “A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable.”
Referring to the early signals, he said: “Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
He added, “It’s becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.”
After Abdulmutallab’s father spoke to embassy officials, the embassy sent a cable to Washington, and Abdulmutallab’s name was added to a database of 550,000 people with possible ties to terrorism, according to the Times.
But he was not put on the no-fly list of 4,000 people or on a list of 14,000 individuals who are required to undergo addition screening before flying. Also, his visa to the United States was not revoked.
The attempted bombing on Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit has touched off partisan squabbling in Washington. Republicans were sharply critical of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after she declared on Sunday that “the system worked,” even though the bombing was thwarted only when Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate.
"It is insulting that the Obama administration would make such a claim," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
House Minority Leader John Boehner said Tuesday: “All year long, we’ve asked the question: What is the administration’s overarching strategy to confront the terrorist threat and keep America safe?
“We haven’t gotten a satisfactory answer, and the secretary’s ‘the system worked’ response doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Democrats countered that Republicans have stood in the way of needed personnel and funds for anti-terrorism efforts, the Times reported, by blocking Obama’s nominee for head of the Transportation Security Administration and by voting against a bill providing $44 billion for Homeland Security operations.
Obama said he had ordered government agencies to provide him with a preliminary report about the security lapse on Thursday.
But he added that, once Abdulmutallab had attempted to bring down the flight, “our homeland security systems and our aviation security took all appropriate actions” — even though the passengers and crew are the ones who apprehended Abdulmutallab, and there was no air marshal on board.
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