Obama slams 'catastrophic' flaws

2009-12-30 08:36

Honolulu - President Barack Obama on Tuesday blamed potentially "catastrophic" and systemic US intelligence failures for the thwarted Christmas Day attack on an American airliner carrying 290 people.

Obama unleashed his fierce criticism after learning the US government had warnings beforehand of a holiday terror strike and intelligence suggesting the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to blow up the jet was a threat.

US officials also disclosed that new intelligence suggested some "linkage" between the attacker and al-Qaeda, while US television networks showed the scorched underwear he used to conceal his potentially lethal bomb.

"A systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said, breaking his Hawaii vacation for a second straight day as recriminations mounted over the December 25 attack.

"There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security," Obama said.

"We need to learn from this episode and act quickly to fix the flaws in our system because our security is at stake and lives are at stake."

Obama complained that the father of would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had warned US diplomats in Abuja that his son was an extremist threat - yet the man was still able to board a US jet with explosives.

Obama referring to CIA

"It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community, but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list," Obama said.

CNN, citing an unnamed source it described as "well placed," said Obama was referring to the CIA.

The source told CNN that a report was written detailing a meeting between Abdulmutallab's father and a Central Intelligence Agency official and sent to CIA headquarters but not circulated within the wider intelligence community.

It was not the first time that intelligence failures had opened the door to a terror attack: the September 11 attacks in 2001, which killed nearly 3 000 people, were blamed on similar errors.

Obama has ordered two reviews into the Christmas Day attack - one into the no-fly list system and another into how Abdulmutallab managed to sneak an explosive device past security at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport onto a plane bound for the US.

He demanded first results by Thursday.

As he enjoys a holiday in his native Hawaii, Obama aides appear sensitive to charges by Republicans he is disengaged from the aftermath of the attack, a factor which might explain his second media appearance in as many days.

A senior US official said that the president learnt on Tuesday that the US government did have information on Abdulmutallab before Christmas, which might have helped prevent his attempt to down the plane.

Though declining to validate al-Qaeda's claim of responsibility, the official did suggest Osama bin Laden's group may be to blame.

Repercussions felt by air travellers

"Some of the new information that we have developed overnight does suggest that there was some linkage there," the official said.

The official added that it was now clear the US government had information before the attack "in some instances about the individual in question and plans, some of it was about al-Qaeda and its plans. Some of it was about potential attacks during the holiday period."

In Yemen, the government meanwhile said that Abdulmutallab had been in the country until a few weeks ago.

The would-be suicide bomber has reportedly confessed to being trained for his mission by an al-Qaeda bomb maker in the country, which many top US officials see as a haven for extremists.

US media, meanwhile, published government photographs showing the suspect's singed underwear, a syringe and a plastic container believed to have stored the explosive PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate.

The device ignited and sent flames up the side of the cabin but failed to detonate properly as the Northwest Airlines flight prepared to land in Detroit.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an affiliate of bin Laden's terror network led by Yemeni and Saudi radicals, claimed on Monday that it was behind the plot and threatened new attacks against the West.

Repercussions were being felt by air travellers around the globe, with China on Tuesday the latest country to call on the US to strengthen security checks.

The Netherlands said it wanted to use body scanners on all passengers flying to the US from its territory.