January 7th, 2010
07:08 PM ET
8 years ago

U.S. could have stopped Christmas Day plot, review finds

Washington (CNN) - U.S. officials had "sufficient information" to have stopped the failed Christmas Day attack on a Michigan-bound jetliner, but a variety of errors kept investigators from uncovering the plot, the Obama administration's preliminary investigation found.

President Barack Obama released the declassified report Thursday afternoon, along with orders for reviews of the agencies involved. But he told reporters that, "Ultimately, the buck stops with me."

"As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility," he said.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based offshoot of the terrorist network that attacked New York and Washington in 2001, has claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25. The suspect in that plot, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, has told investigators he met with Yemeni militants, and his father tried to warn U.S. officials in his home country of Nigeria that his son was becoming radicalized.

U.S. officials knew the al Qaeda operation in Yemen wanted to attack the United States, but failed to uncover the actual Christmas Day plot, said John Brennan, Obama's top homeland security and counterterrorism adviser. Brennan said his biggest surprise in the review was that the Yemeni affiliate's "aspirations" to attack the United States had become a real and nearly successful plot.

The six-page report summary found that the U.S. government "had sufficient information prior to the attempted December 25 attack to have potentially disrupted the AQAP plot."

Read: A summary of the White House report

American officials could have identified AbdulMutallab as a possible al Qaeda operative, the summary states, and kept him from boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253, where investigators say he attempted to set off explosives concealed in his underwear. According to the report, U.S. counterterrorism officials had information about AbdulMutallab, al Qaeda threats to Americans "and information about an individual now believed to be Mr. AbdulMutallab and his association with AQAP and its attack planning."

But "the dots were never connected" - not because information wasn't shared among U.S. agencies, but because it was "fragmentary and embedded in a large volume of other data."

"The intelligence fell through the cracks. This happened in more than one organization," Brennan told reporters after Obama spoke.

The phrase "connect the dots" joined the American lexicon after the 9/11 attacks, when U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies were criticized for failing to share information that could have uncovered the plot. But Brennan rejected any comparison to 9/11, telling reporters, "That is not what happened here. This was not a failure to share information."

Other factors, including the delayed dissemination of a finished intelligence report, and apparently incomplete or faulty database searches on the suspect's identifying information, insufficient information technology and
a misspelling of AdbulMutallab's name, contributed to the failure, the report states.

Released along with the report was a three-page order from Obama outlining what various agencies need to do to correct the "inherent systemic weaknesses and human errors" the review found.

The departments of State and Homeland Security, the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, National Counterterrorism Center and the office of the director of national intelligence, as well as the White House national security staff, have been ordered to report back within 30 days.

"All of these agencies and their leaders are responsible for implementing these reforms, and all will be held accountable if they don't," Obama said.

And Brennan said information already collected by U.S. intelligence is "being reanalyzed and re-evaluated in light of this," and that process has already given investigators new leads to pursue. He would not elaborate.

The State Department has been ordered to re-evaluate how visas are issued, "with a special emphasis on counterterrorism concerns," the order states. And the federal government will install 300 bodyscanners at U.S. airports this year, speeding up additions to the 40 already in place, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters.

Other measures include more metal detectors and explosive detection technology, more sniffer dogs, and more uniformed and undercover agents, Napolitano said.

The order calls on the intelligence community to assign responsibility to individuals to pursue leads on specific high-priority threats, and distribute intelligence reports more widely and quickly. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair will overhaul existing intelligence analytical efforts, and the government will strengthen the criteria used to add people to no-fly list.

A federal grand jury in Michigan indicted AbdulMutallab on Wednesday. The 23-year-old Nigerian national faces six federal charges, including attempting to blow up an airplane and attempting to murder the other 289 people aboard.

According to authorities, AbdulMutallab tried to detonate explosives as the Northwest Airlines flight made its final approach to Detroit. The device failed to fully detonate, instead setting off a fire at the man's seat. Dutch prosecutors said Tuesday that AbdulMutallab apparently arrived in Amsterdam from Nigeria already carrying the explosives he planned to use.

Obama said the United States remains at war with al Qaeda, "and we will do whatever it takes to defeat them." But he added, "We will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans."

"That's what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism," he said. "That's how we will prevail in this fight, and that's how we will protect our country and pass it, safer and stronger, to the next generation," he said.

Obama has been criticized by several leading Republicans, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, for downplaying the military aspect of the battle against al Qaeda - even though the president flatly declared during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in December that "We are at war."

Updated: 7:08 p.m.

Related: Obama points to failures in intelligence system

Filed under: Obama administration • Popular Posts • Terrorism
soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Obama Victim

    feel safe with these fools in charge??

    January 7, 2010 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  2. D.

    The 2008 presidential election was human error as well.

    January 7, 2010 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  3. getreal

    WOW. Now this is the type of transparency we expect from our government. Scary reading, but important information.

    January 7, 2010 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  4. Allowing a Monopoly doesnt bring down prices

    The human errors were Cheneys moles,that may have willfully allowed the attack to happen so he could say "I told you so".

    January 7, 2010 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  5. Willy Brown

    The failure is from the boobs in charge that Obummer was told to apoint.

    January 7, 2010 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  6. Scott, Tucson

    The human error started back in November 2008 when you libs put this twit in the White House.

    January 7, 2010 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  7. gt

    we need to get this right,,,,,

    January 7, 2010 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  8. John D.

    More Whitehouse lies and deceipt

    January 7, 2010 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  9. Desmond, Canada

    The key question is, "Why did the intelligence not get communicated and/or acted upon?" After all are there not people in the system who "want Obama to fail" ?

    January 7, 2010 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  10. getreal

    I feel safer now than when Cowboy W was hanging up "wanted dead or alive posters" – for a guy he didn't catch dead or alive by the way...

    January 7, 2010 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  11. Robin

    So the "system would have worked" if it was not run by incompetant fools?

    This administration is scary. The president puts people in positions to keep Americans safe.

    Does anyone feel safe with Napalitano at the helm of Homeland Security?

    January 7, 2010 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  12. Mickey

    The only errors are from eight years of home-grown terrorism of the Bush Administration...hang them all for treason.

    The fearmongering and racism of the Republican/Conservative movement in this country is over...face the facts.

    January 7, 2010 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  13. George Guadiane - Austerlitz, NY

    "U.S. officials had "sufficient information" to have stopped the Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner, but a variety of human errors kept investigators from uncovering the plot, the Obama administration's preliminary investigation concludes."

    no amount of new technology, no amount of training, no number of employees and ABSOLUTELY no amount of whining, puling, crying, complaining, accusing or lying will ever be able to overcome HUMAN ERROR., no matter who is in the Oval Office or Congress.

    You "Right" Wingnuts need to get a good hold on that truth. NOTHING and NO ONE could have prevented this except the actual people who didn't do their jobs properly, and in this circumstance, PROBABLY all of you Wingnuts would have been equally unable to put the pieces together so BACK OFF!

    January 7, 2010 06:12 pm at 6:12 pm |
  14. mark

    Scary, the incompetence of obama and his gang...

    January 7, 2010 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  15. Joe, Georgia

    I'm really tired of those of you who think this problem is a result of the Presidential election of 2008. Wake up folks. The systems and people who had the responsibility to stop this plot are the same ones that missed the shoe bomber during the Bush/Cheney years. The first error occured in Nigeria at the US Embassy. I will guarantee you that the individual is not a political appointment. The next error occured in the Counter Intelligence Center. Again, this individual is not a political appointment. These individuals are part of a process set up in the Bush years and largely unchanged in the past 12 months. Not changing the system established during Bush/Cheney is probably the biggest failing of the administration in this situation. Had we concentrated on counter terrorism for the past 8 years rather than spending a trillion dollars in Iraq, we may have a better system in place and could afford the scanners for airports that could stop this type of activity.

    January 7, 2010 06:21 pm at 6:21 pm |
  16. Paul

    By the same logic, the US could have also stopped 9/11.

    Terrorists will keep trying to hurt Americans. A few will probably succeed. A good president cannot prevent 100% of all attacks. So far, this president has done an admirable job of keeping America safe. 3000 people died on 9/11 under the GOP's watch. Never forget that.

    January 7, 2010 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  17. Former Republican

    I feel a lot safer than when W was in the White House. This would have been an excuse to take away more of our civil liberties and greater privacy invasions rather than being treated as the failure of execution that it was.

    Why is it that the GOP voters are so quick to forget that Bush's team failed to prevent 9/11, failed to prevent the shoe bomber from getting on a plane, and never caught the guys ultimately responsible for either? Yet somehow he got us into two wars that have cost us over a trillion dollars and >5000 of our bravest that he left for someone else to finish and still hasn't solved the problem.

    January 7, 2010 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  18. Mike in MN

    Obama is making a big deal about improving homeland security. I for one have no problem with making improvements, I support that. But what is clear from here on out is that Obama is staking claim to having improved and even fixed the problems that lead to the failure to stop the attempt on the Detroit airliner. Obama now owns the process and if God forbid there is another attack, the fault will be undisputably his. He can't pass the buck after making a big show of claiming to have fixed the process. Obama owns homeland security, the wars, the economy, health care and the deficits. He can't pass the buck anymore on any of these.

    January 7, 2010 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  19. Pragmatic

    Since President Obama has not done any tinkering with the current intelligence process... one would guess that this failure is just another one for the Bush Administration ... you know ... the one that told us all to "go shopping" and check the color code for the day ...

    Just another left-over problem for the current administration to fix ... and it would have been McCain's problem if he had been elected...

    January 7, 2010 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  20. GaryB

    I'm encouraged by how quickly the Obama administration ordered a review of the situation, sought out weak points and ordered solutions. The first year of transition from one administration to another often opens the door to a certain amount of government disfunction ( i.e. 9/11 for George W. Bush and Waco and Somalia for Bill Clinton). Glad to see the Obama administration problem solving rather than finger pointing. That said, if all would-be terrorist attacks were as ill-conceived and incompetently executed as this one, the terrorism problem would pretty much take care of itself.

    January 7, 2010 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  21. Independant in Missouri

    "The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training"- Joe Biden during the Democratic Primary. Unfortunately we're learning the hard and scary way that he was right.

    January 7, 2010 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  22. vangogh

    The lick-the-Bushies-tushies crowd seems to forget that, had Condy and others paid attention to, among other things, the Phoenix FBI report about Muslim brothers taking plane-turning lessons, it is not out of the realm of possiblity that 911 could have been averted.

    They also forget who set up the doomed-to-fail Homeland Security Department store of a far-too-tangled web.

    Personally, I feel safer under the Obama Administration than I ever did under the Chaney-Rummy-Bush Mis-Admimistration

    January 7, 2010 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  23. Gerry NH

    Cheneys mole – cant get ove Bush and Cheny. Remember they have been out of office nearly a year. Ridicules people.

    January 7, 2010 06:39 pm at 6:39 pm |
  24. Russell Boucher

    What kind of discipline was or will be exercised? Tsk Tsk/you are on probation/you are terminated???? How many and at what level?

    January 7, 2010 06:43 pm at 6:43 pm |
  25. Joe Fattal

    Same for 9/11. The US government could have stopped both planes from taking off. The only thing available to them were to shut down all airports and close air traffic, because they knew. Imagine if they did shut down all traffic and it didn't happened, they would have all airlines excecutives and their attorneys with law suits. I don't believe the US government wanted to take that chance.

    January 7, 2010 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
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