Jan. 5, 2010 -- As U.S. officials step up airline security and attempt to retrace the steps of the Christmas day terror suspect, President Obama met with his top national security advisers today to determine what went wrong, and how it can be prevented in the future.
In the situation room this afternoon, the president was joined by top officials in charge of protecting Americans, among them the heads of CIA, National Security Agency, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"This is a big meeting but it's not a meeting at which heads will roll," said Richard Clarke, ABC News consultant and former counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Clinton and Bush.
As for speculation that someone will get fired, "That's not likely to happen, at least not today," Clarke said on "Good Morning America" today. "What he [Obama] is going to hear instead is work that has already been done over the course of the last week to increase the number of people being screened, deny more visas, make it more difficult for this kind of event to happen again."
The president, White House officials said prior to the meeting, planned to present concrete reforms. One component of that deals with examining and updating the assumptions of the intelligence community and making those assumptions more flexible.
For example, in 2002 a Nigerian traveling to Yemen might not have meant much to the intelligence community. But now with considerable al Qaeda presence in West Africa and Yemen, such an event may have more meaning. The intelligence community's ability to change its assumptions needs to be more subtle, the president believes.
All agencies in charge of U.S. security -- from the State Department to the National Counterterrorism Center -- are reviewing what went wrong in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who boarded Northwest Flight 253 bound for Detroit on Christmas day with the high-explosive PETN strapped to his underwear. His father in Nigeria alerted the U.S. embassy in November of the increasing radicalization of his son and was even paid a visit by a CIA officer. Separately, the U.S. had intelligence that "a Nigerian" was being trained in Yemen for a suicide attack, but the dots were never connected.
Officials Discuss What Went Wrong in the Case of Northwest Flight 253
Today, each agency head discussed the findings of their own reviews.
FBI director Robert Mueller is expected to have given an update on the investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder was expected to provide an update on Abdulmutallab's prosecution, set to start this month in Detroit.
The president also heard about the two reviews he has ordered. Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who has come under fire from some for not acknowledging security lapses immediately following the attack, presented the review on detecting threats to flights. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan presented his findings on intelligence failures.
The president today likely questioned what U.S. agencies missed, and what recommendations from the 9/11 Commission and other experts have not yet been implemented, Clarke said.
Does the Christmas day terror attempt, the Fort Hood shooting, and now reports that a third person who was not on the official list was allowed in the White House State Dinner, all point to a systematic problem in security?
"No it really doesn't. I mean, if you look at the specific mistakes that were made, they were mistakes made by very low level people in a number of different agencies. For example, someone in CIA sat on a report for two weeks that should've been distributed immediately," said Clarke, who worked on Obama's transition team. "There's always a human in the loop, there's no automaticity in this, there's no software that can make it automatic."
The administration has already stepped up security both at home and around the world.
Passengers from 14 nations with al Qaeda presence -- Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or Yemen, or one of the following countries designated as a state sponsor of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria -- are subject to additional screening. The Transportation Security Administration has also beefed up screening measures in the United States, but the administration still needs to make a decision on whether to install high-tech scanners that can detect the kind of explosives Abdulmutallab was carrying, but are considered by some to be an invasion of privacy.
"All of these electronic fixes are expensive they malfunction and they give a lot of customers -- a lot of travelers -- a sense that their privacy is being invaded," Clarke said on "GMA." "This potential attack may be what we needed to get over those concerns and we may see, a year from now, a lot more intrusive devices at airports."
Back in the United States, the administration is scrubbing its expansive terrorist databases and adding individuals to the smaller list of passengers who must be screened before flights, or no-fly lists. The intelligence community is looking at the approximately 550,000 names in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), and the roughly 400,000 names in the Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB) and --"based on age and nationality criteria" extrapolated from the recent plot -- identifying dozens of people from those two lists and adding them to the "Selectee List," which includes about 16,000 individuals who require more stringent screening before they are permitted to board an airplane.
Also some people -- "and their numbers were relatively small" -- were added to the No-fly list, an official said.
The State Department is also getting tougher in revoking and rejecting visas.
"With respect to what happened with the terrorist on the plane coming into Detroit, we are not satisfied. We are conducting an internal review," Clinton said Monday at a joint press conference with her counterpart from Qatar. "We're looking to see whether those procedures need to be changed, upgraded."