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."
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.