HONOLULU — After being told about more missed signals and uncorrelated intelligence that should have prevented a would-be bomber from boarding a flight for the United States, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that there was a "systemic failure" of the nation's security apparatus.
Obama was told during a briefing Tuesday that the government had a variety of information in its possession before the thwarted bombing that would have been a clear warning sign had it been shared between agencies, the New York Times reported.
Details of what the president learned before making his statement were unclear. However, the Times reported that two officials said the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of al-Qaida there were talking about "a Nigerian" being prepared for a terrorist attack. The newspaper's report said that while the intelligence did not involve a name, officials said it would have been evident had it been compared to information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. The government also had more information about where Abdulmutallab had been and what some of his plans were, according to the Times, which cited officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence.
Some of the information at the time was partial or incomplete and it was not obvious that it was connected, the report said, but in retrospect it now appears clear that had it all been examined together it would have pointed to the pending attack.
Shortly after being briefed, Obama, still vacationing in Hawaii, addressed reporters in his second public statement on the matter in as many days, announcing that a review already had revealed a breakdown in the intelligence review system that did not properly identify the suspect as a dangerous extremist who should have been prevented from flying to the United States.
"A systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said. He said he had ordered government agencies to give him a preliminary report on Thursday about what happened.
Obama alluded to the intelligence in his statement. "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," he said. "The warning signs would have triggered red flags and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."
The president's withering assessment of the government's performance could reshape the intensifying political debate over the thwarted terrorist attack. Instead of defending the system, Obama sided with critics who complained that it did not work and positioned himself as a reformer who will fix it. The decision to speak a second time after remaining out of sight for three days also underscores the administration's concern over being outflanked on national security.
With Republicans on the attack against the administration for not taking terrorism seriously enough, Democrats returned fire by accusing the opposition of standing in the way of needed personnel and money while exploiting public fears.
The debate has escalated since Obama's secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, said Sunday that "the system worked" after officials said the suspect tried to ignite explosive chemicals aboard a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. Napolitano the next day made clear she meant the system had worked in its response to the attempted bombing, not before it happened.