In a marked change of tone from his previous comments on the incident, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that a "systemic failure" led to the unsuccessful terrorist attack aboard a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day and promised to hold accountable those responsible for it.
"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted on as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred," Obama said, "and I consider that unacceptable."
Responding to reports that the father of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of trying to ignite explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight, had contacted the U.S. Embassy to warn officials about his son’s extremist views, Obama for the first time acknowledged that there had been a breakdown in U.S. intelligence procedures and that Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up the passenger jet could have been avoided. Obama blamed the breakdown on a post-Sept. 11 intelligence gathering system that "is not sufficiently up to date."
"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. "There appears to be other deficiencies as well."
Obama continued, his voice growing sharper: "Even without this one report, there were bits of information within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together."
In referring to the pieces of intelligence on Abdulmutallab, Obama said: "Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect never would have been allowed to board that plane."
The president said that earlier in the day he had issued formal guidelines for the reviews he ordered over the weekend of the government’s terrorist watch-list system and airline screening procedures and directed that the reviews’ preliminary findings be provided to the White House on Thursday.
"It’s essential that we diagnose the problems quickly and deal with them immediately," Obama said.
The president said the reviews he has ordered will reveal more information about what happened leading up to the Christmas incident, but said that what is clear now is there was "a mix of human and systemic failures." And he promised as president to ensure that intelligence, law enforcement and Homeland Security systems and employees "are working effectively and being held accountable."
"I intend to fulfill that responsibility and insist on accountability at every level," Obama said.
Shortly before his remarks, Obama had a secure conference call with his top national security and counter-terrorism advisors in which he was informed of intelligence information about the attack that his aides had learned overnight, including a link between Abdulmutallab and Al Qaeda, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
"I’m not going to suggest that we know conclusively that [al Qaeda] planned it," the official said. "Some of the new information that we developed overnight does suggest that there was some linkage there."
The contents of Obama’s briefing by National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor, prompted the president to address the American people soon after, the official said.
The intelligence focused on potential attacks over the holidays, offered details on where Abdulmutallab had been prior to his attempted attack and what his intentions might be.
"It was not obvious and readily apparent that all of it spoke to this attack, but in fact we believe it did," the official continued. "It had to do with information that was in possession of the government at the time that spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some plans of al Qaeda were."
Echoing Obama’s words earlier, the official said that had that intelligence "been assessed, correlated could have led to a much broader picture and allowed us to disrupt the attack or to certainly know much more about the alleged attacker."
The official said based on the new intelligence there is no reason to believe that this is a wider threat.
Administration officials believe that the failure was both on the part of people working within the intelligence system as well as of the system itself.
The official stopped short of saying that "accountability" means people could be fired as a result, but said the president "intends to demand accountability at the highest levels."
"It remains to be seen what that means exactly," the official said. "There are a series of shortcomings. Not only was it that this information was available to a component of the intelligence community, but also that there’s other issues that we want to resolve within the intelligence community, within the broader inter-agency as a whole."
Obama spoke from the same podium at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii where he spoke Monday, but his remarks were a stark contrast from that statement. On Monday, he called the unsuccessful attack merely "a serious reminder of the dangers we face" and mostly reiterated what his aides had been saying for the previous three days while describing the investigations the government was conducting into the incident. On Tuesday his tone was sharper, his words more definitive, and for the first time he acknowledged mistakes.
Obama was not definitive about Abdulmutallab’s role in his Monday remarks, saying "a passenger allegedly tried to ignite an explosive device on his body." On Tuesday he described how "this extremist board[ed] a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives."
Obama’s appearance comes amid growing criticism that he had not responded quickly and forcefully enough to the incident. It was three days before he made any public remarks and they came after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had been heavily criticized for saying "the system worked."
But Obama stuck by Napolitano, who clarified her remarks Monday by saying she meant the system worked once Abdulmutallab was on the plane.
"As Secretary Napolitano has said, once the suspect attempted to take down flight 253, after his attempt, it’s clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems and our aviation security took all the appropriate actions," Obama said.
Obama said the reviews he has ordered will reveal more, but that what is clear now is there was "a mix of human and systemic failures."
"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," he said.