Obama slams US 'screw-up'

2010-01-06 09:28

Washington - An angry President Barack Obama on Tuesday lectured US spy chiefs on an intelligence "screw-up" that left a US airliner carrying 290 people open to a barely-averted al-Qaeda attack on Christmas Day.

In a highly unusual public rebuke of the US clandestine community, Obama made a terse televised statement about the thwarted bombing, after gathering agency chiefs and national security aides at a high-stakes White House meeting.

"It is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analysed or fully leveraged," Obama said, suggesting that missed "red flags" before the attack were more serious than originally thought.

"That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it," Obama said.

'Could have been disastrous'

Obama was even more explicit during the meeting in the secure White House Situation Room, an official said, calling for immediate repairs to the flawed US homeland security system, and not typical Washington finger-pointing.

"This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted Obama as saying in the meeting.

"We dodged a bullet but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals not because the system worked," the president said, according to the official.

Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is accused of attempting to bring down the Northwest jet outside Detroit with explosives sewn into his underwear. He was thwarted by quick action by passengers and crew.

As the White House faced intense political pressure over an initial crisis management response dismissed by critics as sluggish, press secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the FBI got "actionable" intelligence from Abdulmutallab.

Republicans have faulted the decision to put Abdulmutallab into the criminal justice system, rather than declare him an "enemy combatant" and submit him to military questioning and justice.

"Abdulmutallab spent a number of hours with FBI investigators in which we gleaned usable, actionable intelligence," Gibbs said.

Guantanamo Bay prison

Obama also announced he would suspend transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Yemen, after blaming an al-Qaeda affiliate in the Arab country for plotting the attack, but vowed he would make good on his promise to close the camp.

"Make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda," Obama said.

White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said the decision could mean more prisoners could be sent to Thomson Correctional Centre in Illinois, selected by the administration to hold Guantanamo Bay inmates.

Obama said probes into the botched plot to blow up a Northwest plane showed US intelligence missed other "red flags" as well as the already revealed fact that Abdulmutallab was a Nigerian extremist who had travelled to Yemen.

He said US intelligence knew that the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wanted to strike not only US targets in Yemen but in the United States itself over the holiday season.

"The bottom line is this - the US government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots," Obama said.

"This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.

"When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way."

Safeguard aviation security

Obama promised that in the coming weeks, he would lay out further steps to safeguard aviation security, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening.

He promised a public summary of a preliminary report into the intelligence failures within days, and demanded swift action to close the gaps.

"I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong. I want those reforms implemented immediately so that this doesn't happen again and so we can prevent future attacks."

The State Department, meanwhile, said on Tuesday it had revoked more visas for people with "suspected ties to terrorism".

Many experts have expressed incredulity that Abdulmutallab was able to travel on a valid US visa, despite his suspected ties to extremists.

Obama's high-powered meeting included the heads of the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the National Counterterrorism Centre, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates.