President Barack Obama accepted personal responsibility yesterday for what he called a "systemic failure" by government agencies to detect an attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, saying "the buck stops with me," as he outlined additional measures to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities and enhance aviation security.
In a 12-minute speech at the White House, Obama said he'd ordered the intelligence community to assign specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority terrorist threats, distribute intelligence reports more rapidly and widely, do a better job of integrating available intelligence and improve criteria for adding people to a "no-fly" list.
He also directed the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen international partnerships on aviation screening through greater use of imaging technology and to work with the Energy Department and national laboratories to develop next-generation screening technology.
Saying he was "less interested in passing out blame" than fixing the problem, Obama declared, "Ultimately, the buck stops with me. . . .When the system fails, it is my responsibility."
But he warned against succumbing "to a siege mentality" that sacrifices America's open society, which he said was a goal of the al-Qaida terrorists. "So long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory," he said.
Obama's remarks came as the White House released an unclassified version of a report detailing security gaps that allegedly allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had been flagged as a budding extremist, to board a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives hidden in his underwear.
A report summary said the most significant failures fell into three categories: failure to properly analyze intelligence about the terrorist group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, and about Abdulmutallab; a failure to "assign responsibility and accountability" for following up the threat; and "shortcomings in the watchlisting system."
The problem appeared to be more a failure to " 'connect the dots,' rather than a lack of information sharing," it says, adding "intentional redundancy" in capabilities of the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center should have been additional protection in uncovering the plot.
The report says "a misspelling" of Abdulmutallab's name initially resulted in the State Department believing he did not have a valid U.S. visa."
Later, senior White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan said, "I told the president today I let him down. . . . I told him I will do better, and we will do better as a team."