WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama announced on Thursday several changes designed to fix security failures, as he declared that as president he was ultimately responsible for US security and suggested he would not fire anyone for the failed Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound airliner.
Security lapses that led to the near-disaster were not the fault of a single individual or agency, he said, vowing they would be corrected.
“As President I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails it is my responsibility,” Obama said.
Obama did not tell intelligence officials to change what they were doing, he just told them to do it better, and faster.
He said that the government had the information that might have prevented the botched attack but failed to piece it together.
He announced about a dozen changes designed to fix that, including new terror watch list guidelines, wider and quicker distribution of intelligence reports, stronger analysis of those reports, international partnerships and an inter-agency effort to develop next generation airport screening technologies.
Americans might be surprised that the government was not already taking some of the steps Obama ordered.
For instance, he directed the intelligence community to begin assigning direct responsibility for following up leads on high-priority threats.
Obama himself hinted at the difficulties of improving intelligence and security against what he called a terrorist network that devised new methods as fast or faster than the US can come up with defences.
“There is, of course, no foolproof solution,” he said. “We have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary.”
He spoke from the White House, his remarks delayed twice as officials scrambled to declassify a six-page summary of a report he'd ordered from top officials on the security failures.
That summary was released immediately after he spoke.
Obama told reporters that “here at home we will strengthen our defences, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust.”
“That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President we will never hand them that victory,” he said.
A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 25 December, by injecting chemicals into a package of pentrite explosive.
He failed to ignite the explosive.
Abdulmutallab, 23, was indicted on Wednesday on charges including attempted murder and trying to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill nearly 300 people.
The White House is anxious to move beyond the issue, which threatens to damage the president politically and distract further from his agenda.
Republicans were quick to criticise the attack and Obama's handling of it, branding him as weak on national security, a perennial election season charge against Democrats that has sometimes been effective in the past.
Jim Lewis, National security analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, agreed with the president that the security lapses were a failure of analysis rather than intelligence.
Lewis believed that there were bound to be further attempts at attacking airliners flying into the United States.
“This is the third time that jihadis have tried to blow up an aircraft en route to the US. You had the shoe bomber, you had the people with the shampoo bottles, and now we have the underwear bomber. Somebody out there is continually trying to come up with a way to get around our security and to bring a bomb onboard an aircraft to blow it up, so this is something we are going to see again,” he said.
Also on Thursday, John Brennan, the US Deputy National Security Adviser for Counter-terrorism and Homeland Security, told reporters that close attention should be paid to Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, referring to Yemen, where Abdulmutallab claimed he had been trained.
He called them “an extension of Al-Qaida core coming out of Pakistan.”
And US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Thursday that “the Christmas Day incident underscored that the screening procedures at foreign airports are critical to our safety here in the United States”.
“Therefore, we have to do all that we can do to encourage foreign authorities to utilise the same enhanced technologies for aviation security,” she said. AGENCIES