HONOLULU — President Barack Obama was briefed Thursday on how a 23-year-old Nigerian with suspected terrorist ties almost succeeded in a Christmas Day airline bombing and how to prevent it from happening again.
Obama received the preliminary assessment ahead of meetings in Washington next week on fixing the shortcomings and failures of the nation’s anti-terrorism policy. Administration officials said the system to protect the nation’s skies from terrorists was deeply flawed and, even then, the government failed to follow its own directives.
Vacationing in Hawaii, Obama talked with the his national security team about progress they were making on a pair of Obama-ordered reviews.
“This morning, I spoke with (homeland security adviser) John Brennan about preliminary assessments from the ongoing consultations I have ordered into the human and systemic failures that occurred leading up to the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas Day and about our government-wide efforts at continued vigilance on homeland security and counterterrorism efforts,” Obama said in a brief written statement.
“In a separate call, I spoke with (Homeland Security) Sec. (Janet) Napolitano to receive an update on both the Department of Homeland Security review of detection capabilities and the enhanced security measures in place since the Christmas Day incident.”
Brennan sent Obama a first summary of the nation’s efforts to track more than half a million potential terrorists. Obama said he would review the full reports before returning to Washington.
The preliminary report was expected to focus on the failure of intelligence agencies to put together various strands of information about suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, according to U.S. officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been presented.
Obama has demanded answers on why the U.S. intelligence community never pieced together information that could have prevented Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner, from ever getting on the plane. Obama called the situation “totally unacceptable” when he met with reporters Tuesday and put his top intelligence officials on notice that he wanted changes.
Administration officials have spent the last week poring over reams of data, looking for failings that allowed Abdulmutallab to board the Northwest Airlines flight from Nigeria by way of Amsterdam. Officials have been sending details to Brennan, who has emerged at the center of the review.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s group, claimed it was behind the attempt to bomb the Northwest airliner.
Senior U.S. officials said that intelligence authorities are looking at conversations between the suspect in the failed attack and at least one al-Qaida member. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the conversations were vague or coded, but the intelligence community believes that, in hindsight, the communications may have been referring to the Detroit attack.
Officials said the link between the suspect’s planning and al-Qaida’s goals was becoming clearer as the review progressed.
The goal now, officials say, is to do everything the U.S. can to prevent a repeat. Even so, they acknowledge a perfect system is impossible to create and it will take weeks to complete a more comprehensive investigation.
Abdulmutallab had been placed in one expansive database, but he never made it onto more restrictive lists that would have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorist screeners, despite his father’s warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month. Those warnings did not result in Abdulmutallab’s U.S. visa being revoked.
“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,” Obama said. “The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
The State Department has said it followed the procedures laid out in regulations adopted after Sept. 11 that require it to share potential threat information it receives for review in an interagency process led by the National Counterterrorism Center.
In this case, that was the concern Abdulmutallab’s father expressed to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19 about his son falling under the influence of extremists in Yemen. The information was passed back to Washington in a so-called VISAS VIPER cable on Nov. 20.
While meeting the standards set out in the regulations, though, the cable did not contain supplementary information, such as the fact that Abdulmutallab held a valid U.S. visa, officials said. Although that detail could have been found by looking in other databases, officials said the review was likely to make mandatory reporting about a subject’s visa history.
U.S. investigators said Abdulmutallab told them he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. Yemen’s government has said Abdulmutallab spent two periods in the country, from 2004 to 2005 and from August to December of this year, just before the attempted attack.
The U.S. has increasingly provided intelligence, surveillance and training to Yemeni forces during the past year, and has provided some firepower, according to a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject.
Republicans — from the top Republican on a House intelligence panel to former Vice President Dick Cheney — have criticized the delay between the attack and the president’s first statement. On the White House blog, communications director Dan Pfeiffer decried Cheney for injecting politics into what the administration is treating as a terrorist attack.
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