Obama: System Failed in 'Potentially Disastrous Way'

Government had intel to uncover plot but didn't connect dots, president says.

Jan. 5, 2010— -- President Obama said today that the nation's security and intelligence system "failed in a potentially disastrous way" when a passenger was able to board a U.S.-bound flight with explosives strapped to 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," the president said after meeting with his national security team for nearly two hours at the White House.

"And it's my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so we can prevent such attacks in the future."

Obama said the security and intelligence breakdown was not because of insufficient information, but rather a failure to connect the dots.

"This was not a failure to collect intelligence. It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already have," he said. "The information was there."

Obama had tougher words behind closed doors. He told members of his national security team this afternoon that the intelligence failure around the attempted Christmas day attack was a "screw-up" and that they only dodged a bullet because of brave individuals of Flight 253.

"This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable. While there will be a tendency for finger pointing, I will not tolerate it," the president said in the Situation Room, according to a White House official.

An administration official said there was no finger pointing in the meeting today and that the leaders of each agency and department took responsibility for failures at their respective organizations.

Each agency brought to the table steps they've already taken to improve their systems and increase the safety of the American people safer, which the president outlined today.

Obama said he would accept that intelligence is "imperfect" but that was not the case with the security lapse on Northwest Flight 253 last month.

"It is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it," he said.

The president reiterated that his administration will not back off its plan to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, but said that detainees will not be sent to Yemen because of the "ongoing security situation" there.

"Make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda," Obama said. "In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."

The president said that it was the administration's intent to transfer to detainees to other countries "only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected."

As a result, "We will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time," he said.

Security Team Met to Review System Breakdown

As U.S. officials step up airline security and attempt to retrace the steps of the Christmas day terror suspect, 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.

Today a White House spokesman said the president has confidence in his top national security officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, and CIA Director Leon Panetta.

But spokesman Robert Gibbs would not answer how the president defines "holding people accountable" -- and if that means someone needs to lose a job or not.

"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.

But former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Ervin says without the president firing anyone, there is no true accountability

"The proof of the pudding as to whether he's serious about accountability it seems to me is whether actually heads roll as a result of this failure, Ervin said.

White House officials said the president would present concrete reforms in today's session. One component will deal 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 to Discuss What Went Wrong in the Case of Northwest Flight 253

In today's meeting, each agency head was expected to discuss the findings of their own reviews. The president said he was briefed on the initial findings of the review he ordered from Napolitano on aviation screening and technology. Napolitano has come under fire from some for not acknowledging security lapses immediately following the attack. Obama said he was pleased the review is "drawing on the best science and technology."

The president ordered Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan to conduct a review on intelligence failures.

FBI director Robert Mueller was to give an update on the investigation and Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to provide an update on Abdulmutallab's prosecution, set to start this month in Detroit.

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."

ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Stephanie Z. Smith contributed to this report.