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. terra

    From what I heard from officials today plus Obama, we've improved since 9/11 in collecting information, but have the same bureaucratic snafus as far as knowing what to do with the information.
    Personally, I think the guy in Nigeria who took the father's info and did nothing should be fired, to be an example to other embassy bureaucrats who just file the information away to the appropriate cabinet. Action is required not just a tidy desk.
    I'm not interested in blaming Bush or calling Obama a fool. I'm interested in fixing the problem. If not, everyone from Obama on down through the intelligence teams should be held accountable.

    January 7, 2010 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  2. Sue

    The ONLY reason that Obama made this information public..........

    Is because he KNEW that the Republicans and media (meaning Fox News)-–would have made sure that the citizens were made aware!!!

    This has NOTHING to do with Obama wanting to be "transparent"-–otherwise, the health care discussions/debates would have been on C-Span.

    PLEASE resign Obama-–and find a community to organize.

    And, please take the corrupt, lying, anti-American, anti-capitalist, crooks--Pelosi, Reid, Geitner, Napolitano, Holder, etc. etc. etc. etc, etc, etc. etc.---with you!!!!

    January 7, 2010 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  3. Kevin Collins

    What a concept - an American president actually taking full responsibility for something! Clinton and Bush could learn something.

    January 7, 2010 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  4. Dave, NE

    We have a community organizer in the office. What can you expect? He is covering it up. Americans, rise up. We do not need such crooks in the office.

    January 7, 2010 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  5. Anni

    Yes, I feel much safer with adults running our country. I would rather have this Administration, that filled with reasonable and thoughtful people. They do not rush into every terroist threat to our nation with, "let's drop a bomb."

    The people that I am afraid of are the ones that think that Cheney is credible and that W was right.

    January 7, 2010 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  6. terry,va

    No kidding!! The guy did everything except walk onto the plane with a sign that said I'm going to blow you up. Obummie says the buck stops here and we have 2 strikes against us. Strike 3 will occur because he hasn't a clue. Please resign before then. Oh for the rural country, no planes for us.

    January 7, 2010 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  7. Party Purity will never bring Political Power!

    The dick's secret "death squad" in the CIA withheld info, just so the dick and the cons could say "That One failed"!

    January 7, 2010 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  8. Thomas

    This wouldn't have happened under Bush , oh I almost forgot , it Did 911 !

    January 7, 2010 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  9. Deanna in Denver

    Now maybe we can get some good practices in place since George dropped that ball.

    January 7, 2010 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  10. obama the liar

    i don't feel we can survive 3 more years with this incompetent clone of jimmy carter in charge

    January 7, 2010 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  11. malclave

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

    Maybe he's growing up and realizing that he has to do more than just make speeches and have people throw flowers at his feet.

    I hope so, but I'm not holding my breath.

    January 7, 2010 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  12. Mike, formerly from Syracuse

    OK, so human error, not the system, is at fault. So why isn't he firing those humans? By the way, Obama cut the budget for the National Counterterrorism Center, who is responsible for connecting the dots. That makes Obama one of the human failures! Want to show some responsibility, then RESIGN.

    January 7, 2010 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  13. Bill

    Surely Obama can find a way to blame this on G.W. Bush. If not, he's out of ammo.

    January 7, 2010 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  14. Bob

    More white house lies and deceit? This is honesty. Do you think Bush would have come out and said that they could have caught someone? No it was leaked in reports. Do we want our politicians to lie to us or be honest?

    January 7, 2010 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  15. granny

    He knows how to read a good line, unfortunately, I stopped believing ANYTHING this fool says about a dozen lies ago.

    January 7, 2010 07:18 pm at 7:18 pm |
  16. George Guadiane - Austerlitz, NY

    Speaking of "Human Error":

    News outlets, "Right" Wingnuts, "LEFT" Wingnuts, EVERYONE is talking about the fact that this guy
    Paid cash
    Bought a one way ticket
    Had no luggage
    Had no coat and was on his way to someplace really cold...

    What do you think the chances are, given the amount of attention that has been brought to these issues that they don't so that again?

    SECURITY would suggest that none of us talk about the things that sould make them stand out like a sore thumb in the future.

    January 7, 2010 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  17. LacrosseMom(stuck in moderation)

    Yes, there were plenty of human errors starting with the Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. WHY didn't they immediately place this man on the "no fly list" when his father reported that he is an extremist?

    How about Amsterdam? No one is crucifying Amsterdam for their security! However, had they been more vigilant they would have suspected a man who name is clearly Muslim, who had a one way ticket.

    How about blaming George W. Bush, whose administration released 14 Yemenis, who returned to Yemen, and have now terrorist ties?!

    There is plenty of blame to go around. BUT........ the chances of an American dying from a terrorist attack is ...... ONE in 80,000! Americans by the THOUSANDS DIE everyday from heart disease, yet I do not hear the GOP upset about that!

    January 7, 2010 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  18. Peter, St. Louis

    Swell! After Obama lets us know that US officials had enough information, but errors kept them from uncovering the plot (thusly blaming officials for the security lapse) he then says that ultimately the buck stops with him. Let's see. He's trying to emulate Harry S Truman's sense of responsibility while, at the same time, blaming US officials. Does Obama ever just flat-ot take responsiblity without pointing fingers?

    January 7, 2010 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  19. Erika PW

    Right....because our country was MUCH safer underneath the watchful eye of the Bush/Cheney administration.....I

    Obama was serious when he talked about operating with transparency. This means sharing the good, the BAD, and everything in-between. Of course President Obama will face challenges; look at the mess he stepped into. However, no amount of preparation or technology will be able to discourage the will of a determined, deranged, and misguided individual. Need an example? Talk to a current Tea-Bagger....

    January 7, 2010 07:27 pm at 7:27 pm |
  20. Debby

    Is this guy for real? He didn't seem to care when he was on vacation playing golf. Now its his fault after he comes back. What a loser this guy is.

    January 7, 2010 07:33 pm at 7:33 pm |
  21. m smith

    Our president is more open and up front than any president in a long time. The Repos are waging a terrior campaign that is being used to scare the American public and undermind our security. The terriorist love all this in fighting. Seeing America divided is just what they want. Senator McCaine has come out with stupid adds making remarks about the president. Palin the Bimbo has once again opened her big trash mouth and the Cheney twins are on a roll. We need to shut all thes malcontents up. It is a disgrace the way they bad mouth this predident and our country. The repos desere to loose and wathcing their party fall apart is a delight to behold.

    January 7, 2010 07:38 pm at 7:38 pm |
  22. mavcal

    Could have, would have, should have. That about sums up the Obama administration. What will it take for the CNN hired talking heads to admit Obama is a paper tiger with alot of talk? No matter what mess this guy gets us into, the talking Obama heads will find a way to meander around his blunders and make excuses. Obama is just not "all that".

    January 7, 2010 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  23. Jane/Seattle

    People are not paid enough to care very often. maybe if TSA would get off some of the Big Bucks they pay those who don't work much, then the little immigrants and poor folks at TSA could take more pride and want to show excellent work! A paycheck this side of homelessness and hunger does not inspire much of a work ethic. These folks also see the lunacy in the FEAR, Hysteria, and endless chatter about a failed attempt!

    I often wonder how the victims of bombs and drones feel and if they make plans to stop those "Terrorists" from America who are killing their loved ones! Get it? No one likes their families murdered and these folks feel the same as we do.n They live and breathe just as we do until someone dehumanizes them into oblivian. This poor confused child on that plane was screaming for help long ago. I wonder where was the community to help him think it through??? American children are in the same quandry so how you gonna protect against that? Peace and Non-Violent Education would teach much better how to live in this world being destroyed by bad ideas and outmoded methods.

    January 7, 2010 07:41 pm at 7:41 pm |
  24. CBR

    Human error does occur and it is the corrections and changes that are made after the errors that matter.

    The original terrorist acts occurred because of human error and poor intelligence monitoring. The Richard Reed incident and others happened because of human error.

    We cannot be 100% safe. We can, however, work together to be as safe as possible. Now if we could just get the political parties to buy into that idea we might just be successful. Until the blame game stops and true cooperation begins we will have problems. Both sides of the aisle have ideas and both sides of the aisle need to work to get them implemented. Both sides are watchdogs but to do so they must stop arguing. Good luck with that happening anytime soon.

    January 7, 2010 07:44 pm at 7:44 pm |
  25. Hammerer

    Obama says that he is resposible for the intelligence mess. That makes it all better. Obama appointed the department heads that totally incompetent. Their concern is that the intelligence departments are politically correct.
    Brennan and Napolitano have no idea of national security. To say that they were unaware that terroist would actually become a human bomb shows their knowledge of the threat to America and should be relieved of their positions.
    Obama gave a rambling explanation of the problem, but his lack of concern for the safety of America, shows his incompetence to solve the problem.

    January 7, 2010 07:45 pm at 7:45 pm |
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