WASHINGTON — An Obama administration official and a congressional critic disagreed Wednesday on whether someone should be immediately ousted after failure to intercept a man who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound airplane.
Denis McDonough, the National Security Council’s chief of staff, said in a nationally broadcast interview that “everybody around the table accepted responsibility” at a tense White House meeting Tuesday afternoon with President Barack Obama.
He said that all involved are working “to learn the lessons of this incident so we can get to the bottom of it.”
“Now the president has said time and again throughout this process that there will be accountability at all levels but we’re not going to prejudge the final review here and jump to any conclusions,” McDonough said, when asked if any individual or individuals would lose their jobs.
“Anything you hear now is the kind of rumor-mongering that’s so typical around these kinds of things,” he said.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the leading Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, charged in a separate interview that “there’s a disconnect between intensity of his (Obama’s) rhetoric and what he proposes to do.”
King, one of the administration’s harshest critics on terrorism, said, “If the situation is as bad as the president says it was … someone will have to go.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience at George Washington University on Wednesday that the government failed to connect the dots and must do better next time.
Still, he added, a great deal has been achieved in the ability to share valuable information on potential terrorist threats.
“I think if you and I on the 12th of September 2001 would have said that it would be nine-plus years before we had anything like this, or we would go that long without another major incident, at least from my perspective, I would have had doubt that we could have done that,” Mullen said.
The White House, meantime, said that a preliminary report on what went wrong will be released Thursday. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said an unclassified version of a report by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan will be made public. Obama will make a statement about the report Thursday, as will Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Obama has said the government had information that could have stopped the attempted attack, but intelligence agencies failed to connect the dots. He ordered reviews on airline passenger screening and on the U.S. terror watch-list system.
The president has come under withering criticism for the Christmas incident in which, authorities say, a 23-year-old man tried to detonate an explosive device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, only to be foiled by a passenger who jumped over seats to subdue him. More than 270 people were on the plane at the time.
The administration’s initial reaction to the incident struck some as slow, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had to take back her initial statement that the system had worked.
McDonough, appearing on several morning news shows, vowed that administration officials will work harder to “follow through” on intelligence leads as the threat of terrorist attack against the United States here and abroad persists.
“We want to make sure that we stay as agile as our enemy,” McDonough said. “And we’re going to make sure that we follow through on all the leads.”
He also said there was no question that the administration officials gathered with Obama “recognized the gravity” of what had happened and had learned from it. He said it was important that officials “understand not only what happened, but get better as a result of it.”
McDonough said of the administration’s continuing review: “The fact of the matter is that everybody in that meeting said they have a solemn responsibility. But here’s what it won’t be — the typical Washington blame game where everybody passes the buck. “
He described the latest incident as a “stumble,” noting the intelligence community’s success in thwarting five young Muslim men from the Washington, D.C., area who traveled to Pakistan with apparent intentions to engage in jihadist activity, and in other recent terrorism cases.
“This was more than a stumble,” countered King. “This was really a glaring error. … I understand mistakes can be made, but this was a really glaring one.”
King said his criticism “is not partisan,” saying he supports Obama when “I think he’s right,” but doesn’t when he sees things differently.
McDonough appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” and on CNN. King appeared on ABC and CBS.