President Barack Obama took responsibility last night for the multiple failures leading up to the botched Christmas Day aircraft bombing and said the heads of all the agencies that are meant to repel terrorists attacks must implement new reforms and "will be held accountable" if they falter.
As the White House published its review of all the missteps that contributed to the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, coming so close to blowing up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with almost 300 people on board, Mr Obama reiterated that America remains "at war" with al-Qa'ida and its affiliates. Saying that nothing in the reviews suggested that fault lay with one individual or one agency, Mr Obama asserted that "buck stops with me". He thus turned his back on those calling for dismissals in the case, with his Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano among those who might have been asked to resign. "I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from mistakes," he added.
With unusually grave mien, Mr Obama warned that al-Qa'ida "is plotting to strike us again" and underscored their increasing interest in recruiting individual loners with no existing terror profile such as Abdulmutallab, who is in custody in Michigan. He also noted that there is nothing the US can do that will guarantee the plots will always be defeated.
The reforms put forward by Mr Obama and further spelled out by Ms Napolitano and his anti-terrorism director John Brennan last night include establishing clearer lines of responsibility for making sure the system works better to "connect the dots" of intelligence once it is gathered and beefing up airport screening technologies both at US airports and internationally in cooperation with other countries. The six-page declassified version of the review handed to Mr Obama said that US intelligence had received unspecified "discrete pieces of information" prior to Christmas Day and dating back as far as October that identified Abdulmutallab as a terrorist who should have been kept off a plane to America.
Mr Brennan will be in charge of refining the existing terrorist watch-list system further so that more people who could represent a threat to US security are moved to no-fly lists. The system of watch-lists is itself "not broken", the review asserted, nor is there any need to rethink the entire edifice of anti-terror institutions established in the wake of 9/11. Rather a "series of human errors" occurred.
Mr Obama closed his address with a warning that the US cannot turn itself into a fortress on account of al-Qa'ida. "We will not succumb to a siege mentality," he said, adding that, "great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust."
Ms Napolitano said that while there are 30 body-imaging machines already deployed across the US, another 300 will be added this year. However, she insisted that this is "an international issue, not just one of the United States," emphasising that technology updates will be necessary globally. She also revealed that she will meet with European Union counterparts in Madrid later this month to try to establish newly reinforced international standards for aviation safety.
As he unveiled the reforms affecting airports and the intelligence community, Mr Obama said that as we are in a "never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary". He added, "That's what these steps are designed to do."
Mr Brennan said that of all the al-Qa'ida affiliate groups worldwide, the one in Yemen has now emerged as "one most lethal and the most concerning". The Christmas Day incident, he told White House reporters, "demonstrated to us that although we had a strategic sense of where they were going but we didn't understand that they were at the point of launching attacks here".
The case of Abdulmutallab and the near catastrophe in the air close to Detroit has dominated headlines in the US since Christmas, only occasionally making way for news of another intelligence catastrophe – the killing of seven CIA employees on 30 December in Afghanistan by a Jordanian informant who turned out to be an al-Qa'ida double agent.
Aware of Republican murmurings that he is fuzzy on security, Mr Obama adopted a stern tone. "We are at war, we are at war against al-Qaida," he said. "We will do whatever it takes to defeat them."
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