Obama Orders Improvements in Security Policies

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday ordered intelligence agencies to take a series of steps to streamline how terrorism threats are pursued and analyzed, saying the government had to respond aggressively to the failures that allowed a Nigerian man to ignite an explosive mixture on a commercial jetliner on Christmas Day.
The president also directed the Homeland Security Department to speed the installation of $1 billion in advanced-technology equipment for the screening of passengers, including body scanners at American airports and to work with international airports to see that they upgrade their own equipment to protect passengers on flights headed to the United States.

He said intelligence reports involving threats would be distributed more widely among agencies. He instructed the State Department to review its visa policy to make it more difficult for people with connections to terrorism to receive visas, while making it simpler to revoke visas to the United States when questions arise.

“We are at war,” Mr. Obama said, releasing an unclassified version of a report on the attempted attack.

He pledged not to “succumb to a siege mentality” sacrificing the country’s civil liberties for security, but he called for expanding the criteria for adding people to terrorism watch lists.

The report concluded that the government’s counterterrorism operations had been caught off guard by the sophistication and strength of a Qaeda cell in Yemen, where officials say the plot against the United States originated.

“We didn’t know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here,” said John O. Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, in a briefing to reporters.

The report sharply criticized the National Counter Terrorism Center and the Central Intelligence Agency. The president ordered the agencies to speed the dissemination of information about potential plots and to develop ways of more quickly pursuing connective threads on potential terrorists.

“In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s what these steps are designed to do.”

Mr. Obama ordered the review of the incident in which a Nigerian man traveling to Detroit from Amsterdam tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight and its 278 passengers. The man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is to be arraigned Friday on charges of attempted murder on a plane, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and other offenses.

It was the second time this week that the president delivered public remarks on the attempted bombing and the intelligence lapses. Administration officials said human error led to perhaps the biggest lapse of all: the failure to put Mr. Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list despite the government’s having information that showed him to be not only a threat, but also a threat with a visa to visit the United States.

The internal report, conducted by Mr. Brennan, blamed a host of errors for the intelligence lapse, including a misspelling of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name. The mistake led officials at the State Department to the erroneous conclusion that Mr. Abdulmutallab did not have a visa.

“The intentional redundancy in the system should have added an additional layer of protection in uncovering a plot like the failed attack on Dec. 25,” the review found. “However, in both cases, the mission to ‘connect the dots’ did not produce the result that, in hindsight, it could have.”

But the systemic breakdown went much further. The cable from the State Department outlining Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father’s warnings about his son was available to the N.C.T.C. officials who maintained the no-fly list, the report said. But the cable alone did not meet the minimum standard for Mr. Abdulmutallab to get on the list.

At that point, a senior administration official said, the logical thing to do would have been to cross check to see if there were other red flags out on Mr. Abdulmutallab. That apparently did not happen.

“Watch-list personnel had access to additional derogatory information in databases that could have been connected to Mr. Abdulmutallab,” the report said, “but that access did not result in them uncovering the biographic information that would have been necessary for placement on the watch list.”

Mr. Brennan said that the intelligence failures that took place before Christmas were not similar to the lapses that led to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Back then, some agencies were denied access to critical information, he said, but those problems have been resolved with the changes in the structure of intelligence agencies.


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