Obama: 'Human and Systemic Failures' to Blame in the Terror Plot

Supporters say the president reacted appropriately in ordering security reviews.

ByHUMA KHAN via logo
December 29, 2009, 7:37 AM

Dec. 29, 2009— -- President Obama bluntly admitted today that "human and systemic failures" in the U.S. security system led a 23-year-old Nigerian man to get on board U.S.-bound Flight 253 in an attempt to blow it up Christmas Day.

The president said the preliminary information from the reviews he has ordered "raises some serious concerns," and he said intelligence agencies need to act quickly to fix those flaws.

The warning that was provided by the father of terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was not effectively distributed, so his name was not added to the no-fly list.

"There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together," the president said.

The president's tone was markedly different from yesterday, when he addressed the incident for the first time. On Monday, Obama spoke cautiously about the reviews he had ordered and praised the passengers who stopped the attack, but today he was tougher, saying frankly that there were deficiencies in the security system that should have been pieced together.

"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon 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 occcurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," the president said from Hawaii.

"The system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have," he said.

While the president acknowledged the lapse in security, he praised security professionals for keeping Americans safe.

A preliminary report on the two reviews Obama ordered will be completed by this Thursday and a more comprehensive review will be completed in the coming weeks, the president said. Obama had called for two security reviews: one to assess terror-watch list procedures and another to determine how the suspect was able to get explosives onto the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

The Obama administration has come under fire from critics who said the president waited too long to address the nation publicly about the Christmas Day terror plot and that his administration has not been tough enough on terrorism.

The mostly partisan attacks came after Friday's attempt by a Nigerian national to blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it approached Detroit. Terror plots in the past have tended to unite the two parties, but recent attacks have departed from that norm.

Even Obama's orders of a sweeping review of how the suspect managed to board the flight from Amsterdam has done little to appease his critics.

Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, blamed the Obama administration for taking its eye off the threat of terrorism from abroad.

"I think there's enough blame to go around here," Hoekstra said Monday in an interview with ABC News. "The bottom line is we ended up with a bomb on a plane with a detonator ready to go off. That's totally unacceptable. There's probably failures at every step of the way, in Nigeria, in the Netherlands, and in the overall procedures. Early on in this administration, I think that this administration sent a clear signal that they believed that the threat to the homeland was not as significant as what it really is."

The foiled Christmas Day attack, carried out by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, poses a tough dilemma for the president: Should he continue his family holiday in Hawaii -- an annual tradition for the Obamas -- or return to Washington?

The president broke from his vacation to reassure the public Monday afternoon, saying he has called for more air marshals and tougher screenings. The president so far has no plans to change his holiday schedule and he is being briefed at least half a dozen times per day, according to the White House.

Vice President Joe Biden is in the U.S. Virgin Islands, also vacationing with his family.

Some experts say the president's response -- to speak to the public two days after the incident -- was appropriate, and doing so earlier would have encouraged others like Abdulmutallab.

"I'm not one of these people that thinks the president has to be out there every time something happens, that's why he has people that work for him," ABC News consultant Matthew Dowd said on "Good Morning America" today.

But others said the president should have been at the front and center immediately after the incident and that he waited too long to address the public, all the while golfing, spending time on the beach, even playing a game of tennis before making his remarks.

"This was an assault on the United States, and it is important at a time like this that the president of the United States or someone in the administration with stature step forward," Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., the ranking member on the House Homeland Security said on CNN Sunday. "Whether it was President Bush or President Clinton or President Reagan, at times like this, the country looks for a leader. And I just feel that this administration is much more comfortable in talking about issues other than terrorism."

Democratic strategist James Carville said "Wild West kind of goofy statements" wouldn't have helped the public, but experts agree that the Obama administration needs to determine what went astray.

"If this review, which I'm very interested in -- and by the way, I think this is some kind of a fault we have in our security system -- and this thing should be taken extremely seriously but it's going to be what kind of security review we had -- when did the system break down," Carville said.

"This thing needs to be taken very very seriously and we need to find out what happened."

Terror Plan Stirs Partisan Debate

The first one, by the Transportation Security Administration, is underway. The terror-watch list review is still in the "gathering information" stage.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to appoint Obama's nominee for TSA director, Erroll Southers, but White House officials expressed confidence in acting director Gale D. Rossides.

As for Christmas Day attack, National Security Council chief of staff Dennis McDonough told reporters the administration has not confirmed whether a regional al Qaeda group was behind the foiled plot. Al Qaeda Monday took responsibility for the attack, saying it trained and armed Abdulmutallab.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has also come under fire, particularly from Republicans, for flip-flopping on her statements about security. Napolitano said Sunday the "system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days."

But she said Monday her comments were in reference to security after the incident occurred, and acknowledged that more needs to be done to address the discrepancies in the various government lists.

A DHS spokesperson told ABC News that Napolitano spoke earlier Monday to Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin, who conveyed to her that they are now using advanced imaging technology to screen U.S.-bound passengers at the Schiphol Airport, where Abdulmutallab departed for his flight to Michigan.

Abdulmutallab was on the U.S. government's terror-watch list but not on the no-fly list, even though the United Kingdom had denied him a visa and his father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria of his son's increasing radicalization.

"Meaningless, to be quite honest," security analyst Douglas R. Laird said of Napolitano's assurances. "They don't have the technology in place that they need to do the job properly."

Even some Democrats said Napolitano dropped the ball.

"The secretary of Homeland Security put the more pressure on the president by making those statements on Sunday where she said the system did work, and obviously she's trying to roll those back," Dowd said.

Some editorialists have compared Napolitano's remarks to former President George W. Bush's praising then-FEMA Director Michael Brown for doing "a heck of a job" after Hurricane Katrina.

"I would have a hard time arguing it's the same quality," Dowd said on "GMA." "It is a problem where we have now been in this situation for eight years, and we have a person that is on a watch list -- or is on some sort of a list, who buys a ticket with cash, who the British refused to let ... in the country ... and get on an airplane, and only through his incompetence, not anything we did ... the plane didn't go down and that's the problem."

"There needs to be a real, real investigation here," Carville said. "If we get answers and we know people are working to correct it, people will feel better."

Despite the president's attempt to reassure the public, some Republicans are seizing on the plot to criticize the administration. In an e-mail solicitation Monday, Hoesktra attacked the Obama administration and then asked for monetary support for his gubernatorial campaign.

"Since President Obama took office, he and his left-wing cronies have taken steps to undermine the work of our brave men and women who work tirelessly to keep us safe," the e-mail said. "Barack Obama's policies may impress the 'blame America first' crowd at home and his thousands of fans overseas, but they sure don't do anything to protect our families in Michigan or the rest of America.

"I will be a governor who fights, every day, to keep Michigan safe."

Carville assailed Hoekstra for using politics to raise money for his campaign.

"I think this is the same gentleman, people need to know, that had a press conference and said we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Carville said. "I think this man has some sort of intellectual challenges. ... And it's kind of odd that you would put it in a fundraising letter."

ABC News' Yunji de Nies and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.

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