Obama seeks to close gaps in intelligence sharing

Jan 7 2010 - 9:16pm

WASHINGTON -- Declaring the "buck stops with me," President Barack Obama on Thursday released results of an internal investigation into the Christmas Day terrorist plot and ordered a raft of measures meant to close gaps in the U.S. intelligence system that failed to detect it in advance.

The president avoided blaming any particular agency or official for breakdowns that allowed a Nigerian extremist to board a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit armed with explosives, leaving a series of warning signs along the way.

"Ultimately, the buck stops with me," Obama said at the end of a week-long response to the first major terrorism attempt during his administration. "As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. When the system fails, it's my responsibility." Nevertheless, the remedies he ordered in a memo to Cabinet officials and security chiefs mostly were modest steps, and intelligence officials defended the existing system as largely functional and superior to the apparatus in place before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite striking similarities to that terrorist plot -- an attempt by al Qaida to exploit weaknesses in the nation's aviation system -- the report concluded that another round of sweeping intelligence reorganization "is not required." Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, argued that the two situations don't even compare.

"Before 9/11, there was often a reluctance or refusal to share information between departments and agencies," Brennan said. "That is not what happened here." Because of those differences, the changes outlined by the administration are incremental, even for the National Counterterrorism Center, which has borne the brunt of the criticism and was singled out repeatedly in the report for failing to "connect the dots." The fixes for the center include establishing a process "to prioritize and pursue thoroughly" terrorism tips.

The CIA also was faulted for failing to assemble important clues. But CIA Director Leon E. Panetta issued a statement that seemed anything but apologetic.

The agency had collected and shared information about the alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, before the plot, Panetta said, but would now take steps to "do even more to support our government's efforts." In particular, the agency gave itself a new 48-hour deadline for disseminating information on suspected extremists, and vowed to conduct more thorough traces on suspects' names to pull up data that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

In a briefing following release of the report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano unveiled a series of changes her agency is implemented, including plans that were in motion before Christmas to deploy 300 advanced imaging machines to airports around the country.

She also said the administration will press foreign governments to tighten screening procedures at airports around the world.

The Christmas Day incident underscores that "the screening procedures at foreign airports are critical to our safety here in the United States," she said. "After all, there were passengers from 17 countries aboard Flight 253. This is an international issue, not just one about the United States." Currently, 19 airports use the scanners. But the move to expand their use ran into strong opposition on privacy grounds from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress last year. Civil libertarians described the scanners as a "virtual strip search.

In June, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a freshman Republican from Utah, won approval of a bill to bar the use of these body imagers as the primary scanners at airports. "Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane," Chaffetz said.

His amendment won on a 310-118 vote in June. The Senate, however, has not taken up the idea.

As Obama unveiled his plans to improve the system, he addressed the inherent tension between heightened security concerns and the fundamental elements of American culture.

"Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," he said. "That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory."

Staff writer David G. Savage in Washington contributed to this report.

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