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Updated: January 1, 2010 15:48 IST

Obama begins New Year with eye on intelligence

AP
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AP

President Barack Obama is reviewing reports from homeland security officials as his administration tries to determine what U.S. policy and personnel failures preceded the attempted bombing of a jetliner bound from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Intelligence officials, meanwhile, prepared for what was shaping up to be uncomfortable hearings before Congress about miscommunication among anti-terror agencies and sweeping changes expected under Mr. Obama’s watch.

Democrats joined a chorus led by Mr. Obama in declaring the government’s intelligence procedures in need of repair. Among them, Democratic Rep. Jane Harman said that when the government gets tipped to trouble as it did before a 23-year-old Nigerian man boarded the Northwest Airlines jet with explosives, “someone’s hair should be on fire.”

One senior administration official told reporters travelling with the vacationing president: “The failure to share that information is not going to be tolerated.”

The official, like others involved in the reviews, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence discussions.

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced Jan. 21 hearings as part of an investigation to begin sooner. “We will be following the intelligence down the rabbit hole to see where the breakdown occurred and how to prevent this failure in the future,” said Sen. Kit Bond, top Republican on the committee. “Somebody screwed up big time.”

Few questioned that judgment, even if some Democrats rendered it in more measured tones.

Mr. Obama received a preliminary assessment ahead of meetings he will hold in Washington next week on fixing the failures of U.S. anti-terrorism policy. Administration officials said the system to protect America’s skies from terrorists was deeply flawed and, even then, the government failed to follow its own directives.

Mr. Obama spoke separately with counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who announced she was dispatching senior department officials to international airports to review their security procedures.

Despite billions of dollars spent to sharpen America’s eye on dangerous malcontents abroad and at home, the creation of an intelligence-information overseer and countless declarations of intentions to cooperate, it was already clear that the country’s national security fiefdoms were still not operating in harmony before the attempted bombing on Dec. 25.

The preliminary assessment is part of a continuing, urgent examination that officials said on Thursday is highlighting signals that should not have been missed. One likely outcome, they said, was new requirements within the government to review a suspicious person’s visa status.

Officials are tracing a communications breakdown that would have had grave consequences except for the attacker’s fumbling failure to detonate an explosion and the quick response of others on the flight. Now Mr. Obama, like George W. Bush before him, is struggling to get America’s disparate intelligence and security agencies on the same page.

In the heat of hindsight, even Mr. Obama and some fellow Democrats are excoriating a system they thought was on the mend in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“The president was direct in his assessment that intelligence failures were a contributing factor in the escalation of this threat,” Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair wrote to employees. “This is a tough message for us to receive. But we have received it, and now we must move forward and respond as a team.”

An anxious father’s pointed warning that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused of trying to destroy the Northwest plane, had drifted into extremism in Yemen, an al-Qaida hotbed, was only partially digested by the U.S. security apparatus and not linked with a visa history showing the young man could fly to the U.S.

That was one prominent lapse the review is addressing, said U.S. officials familiar with the process. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public.

Other clues were missed too, such as conversations between the suspect and at least one al-Qaida member that U.S. authorities are studying now. The form of the conversations, whether written or by phone, has not been disclosed and it is not known whether U.S. officials intercepted them before the attack or found them later.

Also, in the year before the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting rampage in November that killed 13 people, a joint terrorism task force overseen by the FBI learned of the Army suspect’s repeated contact with a radical cleric in Yemen who encouraged Muslims to kill U.S. troops but did not relay the information about the major to superiors.

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