President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the government had sufficient information to uncover the terror plot to bring down a commercial jetliner on Christmas Day, but that intelligence officials had “failed to connect those dots.”
“This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had,” Obama said after meeting with his national security team for nearly two hours. He added, “We have to do better, we will do better and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.”
The tone of the president’s remarks on Tuesday — the sharpest of any of his statements since the incident nearly two weeks ago — underscored his anger over the lapses in intelligence and his efforts to minimize any political risks from his administration’s response.
The president said he was suspending the transfer of detainees to Yemen from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. While he renewed his commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, halting the transfer of detainees to Yemen, where an al-Qaida cell has been connected to the Christmas Day attack, underscores the difficulty facing the president in closing the detention center and reflects the intense criticism that Republicans have directed at the administration in recent weeks.
Obama also said that intelligence and law enforcement reviews of the terror plot would be completed this week and that he would announce additional security measures for air travelers in the coming days. It was his fullest and most forceful statement to date on the incident, in which a Nigerian man traveling to Detroit from Amsterdam tried to ignite an explosive mixture that could have brought down the Northwest Airlines flight and its 278 passengers.
“I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong,” Obama said, speaking in the Grand Foyer of the White House. “I want those reforms implemented immediately, so that this doesn’t happen again and so we can prevent future attacks.”
Obama’s stark assessment that the government failed to properly analyze and integrate intelligence served as a sharp rebuke of the country’s intelligence agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the organization set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to ensure that the government had a central clearinghouse for spotting, assessing and thwarting terrorist threats.
But Obama insisted that he is not interested in getting into a blame game. White House officials said the president is standing by his top national security advisers, including those whose agencies failed to communicate with one another.
In a meeting Tuesday with those officials, the president called the events leading up to the Christmas Day attack a “screw-up,” one White House official said, telling the assembled officials, “We dodged a bullet, but just barely.” Obama, the official said, also told the group that he would not “tolerate” finger-pointing.