WASHINGTON — “The buck stops with me,” President Barack Obama said Thursday as he outlined measures aimed at preventing another terrorist attack on the United States in the tense aftermath of a Christmas Day attempt to blow a Detroit-bound jetliner out of the sky.
“When the system fails, it’s my responsibility,” Obama said — an indication that no high-level firings of intelligence officials would result from the near-miss incident.
The president said he’s ordered steps be taken to ensure all leads on potential terrorist plots are thoroughly investigated, that intelligence is better shared and that no-fly lists are utilized properly.
“We can’t sit on information that can protect the American people.”
As the president spoke at the White House, his administration released a declassified version of a preliminary, six-page report on what went wrong two weeks ago when 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up the airliner with explosives hidden in his pants.
The device was ignited, but failed to detonate.
Passengers and crew subdued Abdulmutallab, an apparent al Qaida operative, and the plane landed safely.
Obama said intelligence agencies knew that an al Qaida affiliate based in Yemen was plotting an attack on the U.S., but failed to zero in on the “known terrorist” before he boarded the Northwest flight in Amsterdam.
The president has ordered comprehensive reviews into how terrorist watch lists are compiled and used, and how airline passengers are screened.
The first line of defence is intelligence that must be shared and acted upon swiftly, he added.
“Unfortunately, that’s not what happened” on Christmas Day, he said.
Abdulmutallab, who was indicted on Wednesday on attempted murder and other charges, has reportedly told investigators he was trained by al Qaida operatives in Yemen.
His father also warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that his son was an extremist.
He was in an intelligence database of about 550,000 people with suspected terrorist ties, but Abdulmutallab didn’t make it onto the no-fly list that would have prevented him from boarding the aircraft.
Abdulmutallab had reportedly been flagged for additional screening, but only after the plane was already headed for Detroit.
Obama pledged major new investments in airport security and better partnerships around the world surrounding passenger screening to keep suspected terrorists off planes. But he also cautioned there was “no silver bullet.”
Canada, for its part, has announced efforts to enhance security that include installing 44 controversial full-body scan machines — dubbed “naked” scanners by some because they can “see” through clothing — in airports across the country.
The White House report delves into the problems investigators had in probing separate pieces of intelligence gathered before the attempted attack. But “the watch listing system is not broken” and overhauling the U.S. counter-terrorism system not necessary, it concludes.
Instead, the report calls for strengthening the process used to add suspected terrorists to watch lists.
The report also says “a series of human errors” lead to the communication breakdown. Those errors included a delay in the dissemination of an intelligence report, and the CIA’s failure to scour every available databases for information on Abdulmutallab.
Intelligence officials did indeed share information, the report says. But they didn’t truly comprehend what they had in hand.