WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the government had sufficient information to uncover a plot to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day but that the U.S. intelligence community "failed to connect those dots."
The officials had reports that al-Qaida was working with the attacker and that the group was planning attacks on American targets in Yemen and the United States, Obama said.
"It now turns out that our intelligence community knew of other red flags that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike not only American targets in Yemen, but the United States itself," he said.
"And we had information that this group was working with an individual who … we now know was in fact the individual involved in the Christmas attack."
Obama spoke after he met with his top security advisers, pressing for answers about how the government failed to heed warning signs and allowed 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a Detroit-bound plane, allegedly with explosives in his underwear.
"When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way," Obama said. "And it's my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future."
He said his top aides and Cabinet officers took responsibility for failures in their agencies or departments.
The president was more direct in his meeting with top aides.
"This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous," he told them, according to the White House. "We dodged a bullet, but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable."
Obama promised to announce new measures within days to ward off attacks, including policies to connect the dots of disparate intelligence and to screen airline passengers better. He noted that the Department of Homeland Security is working with the Department of Energy to use the best technology available, presumably to find the kinds of explosives that went undetected on Christmas.
National intelligence directory Dennis Blair said in a statement on Tuesday evening that the "intelligence community received the president's message today — we got it." He acknowledged the failures, but added, "We can and we must outthink, outwork and defeat the enemy's new ideas."
Obama also said he was suspending the transfer of detainees to Yemen from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but renewed his commitment to close the prison. Obama inherited 242 detainees at Guantanamo when he came into office, and so far has released or transferred 44. Of the 198 remaining, about 92 are from Yemen. Of those, just under 40 have been cleared for release, a senior administration official said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, meanwhile, said Tuesday that "Abdulmutallab spent a number of hours with FBI investigators in which we gleaned useable, actionable intelligence." Gibbs was responding to Republican critics who have complained that the decision to charge Abdulmutallab rather than turn him over to the military as an "enemy combatant" gave him more legal protection against interrogation and made it less likely that he would talk.
Gibbs noted that the Bush administration also charged terrorism suspects with crimes, including would-be airliner shoe bomber Richard Reid, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Jose Padilla.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.