January 7th, 2010
07:08 PM ET
10 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. Future expat

    There are Cheney loyalists in American security agencies that are actively working to stifle intelligence so as to facilitate terrorist attacks for political gain. This same apparatus that was responsible for 9/11 is now engaging in the same activities, as per Cheney's orders.

    I can't really prove any of this, but if Glenn Beck can pass his brainfarts off as facts, then so can I.

    January 7, 2010 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  2. MikeH

    Root out and replace all the Bush operatives hired at the last minute before Bush left office.

    Bush stuck all kinds of incompetent treasonous right-wing wackos into the CIA, State Department, TSA, and DHS. Get 'em all out and replace them with smart loyal Americans. We will all be a lot safer then.

    January 7, 2010 07:51 pm at 7:51 pm |
  3. charlotte

    Better to have Obama in charge than Bozo and Darth like we used to. At least the guy is intelligent, has some ethics, and is actually willing to tell the truth unlike the Thuglicans. So refreshing to see our President actually calling for answers and insisting on accountability instead of pretending that everything is under control. THANK GOD WE HAVE OBAMA.

    January 7, 2010 07:56 pm at 7:56 pm |
  4. Viewer

    Let's remember that 9/11 happened during the Bush administration. Also, Christmas Day was a "failed" act. The officials in charge of security should be replaced.

    January 7, 2010 07:59 pm at 7:59 pm |
  5. Welcome to Communist States of America

    For his own sake, Obozo will tighten the security. Because if another terrorist attack happens in his last year presidency, he won't be able to blame Bush anymore (or the system or whatever).

    The so called "failed" system (which was not failed during Bush because we were relatively safe after 9/11) is his baby now. Don't cry and blame Bush if another attack happens under your watch, baby.

    January 7, 2010 08:00 pm at 8:00 pm |
  6. Scott, Tucson

    So when is this twit going to fire Janet Napolitano?

    January 7, 2010 08:00 pm at 8:00 pm |
  7. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    The Soviet Union was defeated and left Afghanistan and I have never heard of a terrorist attack against them nor have I heard they were cowards for retreating. Think about it.

    January 7, 2010 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  8. Real American

    Sad and lame, we are still saddled with Bush's security apparatus. Let's let a few heads roll at the middle management level. Good thing for us that the pants-bomber had a British engineering degree.

    January 7, 2010 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  9. Lee in TN

    Although President Obama has a lot on his plate, this is one more mess left from the Bush/Cheney administration he will have to make work. The entire Homeland Security program enacted by Bush is just a facade with no real working components. A classic example is the Bush enacted Bank Secrecy Act, which is more about spying on the finances of Americans than monitoring terrorist activity. The nation was never safe during the Bush/Cheney years.

    January 7, 2010 08:06 pm at 8:06 pm |
  10. Runofthemill

    Please note – this guy was put on the list in 06 and 08.

    The policies that failed were in place since 05 - Obama was so busy putting out other fires that he did not get this one out fast enough. Of course, it might have helped if the republicons were not playing games of union busting with the chairman of the TSA - they are the lowest of scum. As usual, endangering the nation for a few cheap polling points with tea baggers.

    And can you imagine the past administration being honest enough to say they could have done a better job? Thank God we have responsible intelligent adult leadership for a change.

    January 7, 2010 08:22 pm at 8:22 pm |
  11. KDavid

    I keep hearing the term systemic human error... systemic error..... Why not just say INCOMPETANCE! lets call it what it is .. then get people truely busy with the safety comission ideas that were started in 2001 !

    Homeland Security was started becuase CIA, FBI, Your PD. and any other gov task force needed to be consolidated. all have the same effort and same TASK.. protect the american people = YOU

    now then we have voted on these jokers to represent us. are they Protecting YOU ??? or eating more donuts till its vote time agin?

    January 7, 2010 08:23 pm at 8:23 pm |
  12. KDavid

    BINGO ..."feel safe with these fools in charge??"" really???

    January 7, 2010 08:25 pm at 8:25 pm |
  13. Marie Laveaux

    Very heartening to see and hear that the current Administration is actually doing it's own research, identifying the problems (left over from the previous debacle) and taking measures to fix them. On top of all of this is a man humble enough, honest enough, and smart enough to say the system failed under his watch. I understand how Willy and Obama Victim and D and Scott and John D fail to recognize this, after 8 years of bumbling, deceit, apathy and arrogance, they have been brainwashed. (Must not have taken too long, not much to work with after all).

    January 7, 2010 08:28 pm at 8:28 pm |
  14. Your comment is awaiting moderation AGAIN

    If the Obama administration would have had the cooperation of the republicans, had time to update, tighten up and revise a lot of the previous administrations regulations this might have been prevented. The thing is, the previous administration did not try to close the loop holes all they wanted to do was ALERT ALERT ALERT TERROR TERROR TERROR so they could keep the dumb butt people in line, scare them to death so they would vote for republicans thinking they were protecting them.

    January 7, 2010 08:30 pm at 8:30 pm |
  15. Mike in Texas

    If you truly love our country get behind the President on this. Move on. Those who dwell on the past are losers. Only winners look ahead.
    A country divided cannot stand on it's own people. Quit being haters. You are giving fuel to terrorists. Only as a country united can we take on these terrorists.

    If any out there hope for another attack so that is would hurt Obama's chance for re-election, I suggest you leave the country. You are a traitor to this great nation.

    I was not a Bush fan but I wasn't a paranoid thinking he was trying to destroy our country.

    Is Obama perfect.. Far from it. Is he a trying to destroy our country? Child, Please!!

    January 7, 2010 08:37 pm at 8:37 pm |
  16. Greg

    Folks just want to hate. The mistakes were made by the people working the gates and analyzing the data and information. These folks are career employees, not political appointees. They probably were working during the Bush administration. The President doesn't man the gates nor does he analyze the data.

    Get over it, you lost.

    January 7, 2010 08:39 pm at 8:39 pm |
  17. CA Indie for Obama

    Let me get this straight...
    Despite a series of failures of the agencies to "connect the dots", lives were not lost. Pres Obama took the time to study why the plot was not stopped sooner and is taking steps to correct.

    so why are the repub posts here raking the President over the coals? He is trying to improve the agencies' performance to prevent a tragedy, something the prior President tried to stonewall in the aftermath of Sept 11. Seems to me the repubs would rather not have the incident disclosed and not have any improvements made. At least Pres. Obama identifies a problem and is taking steps to try to correct.

    Now I can't wait until the partisan right starts raking me over the coals for wanting improved performance from our government and holding them accountable.

    January 7, 2010 08:42 pm at 8:42 pm |
  18. Jo Ann

    Bush supporters love this kind of stuff, gives them something to complain about.

    Obama supporters blame the Bush Bunch.

    Would be nice for ALL of us to be AMericans FIRST and act as such.

    January 7, 2010 08:50 pm at 8:50 pm |
  19. Buck

    Well if the buck stops with Obama, he can pay the taxes on it.

    January 7, 2010 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |
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