Mr. Obama’s remarks in the Grand Foyer of the White House came after he presided over a meeting of his top national security officials.
“The US government had sufficient information,” he said, “but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots.... That is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it.”
The Yemen connection
Obama also announced that the transfer of Guantánamo Bay prisoners to Yemen was being suspended immediately. Bomb plot suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, reportedly told investigators that he had worked with Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, a known haven for extremists. About 90 of the 198 remaining prisoners at the US detention facility at Guantánamo are from Yemen.
Obama added that he still intends to close the US-run Guantánamo prison. But his announcement of suspended returns to Yemen deals the latest blow to his stated intention of closing the prison by Jan. 22, a deadline he was already going to miss. At a briefing earlier on Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged that some of the Yemeni prisoners could wind up in a new prison planned in Thomson, Ill.
Obama’s sternly delivered remarks represented the president’s latest effort to show the public he is on top of security, after a slow public response immediately following the attempted attack. Republicans have tried to make political hay out of the attack, the administration’s response, and its insistence on closing Guantánamo, which a majority of Americans oppose. Republicans typically are seen as stronger than Democrats on national security issues.
New security measures forthcoming
In his statement, Obama did not announce new security measures, but said more would be forthcoming. He also said agency reviews of the bomb plot would be completed by the end of the week.
Since Dec. 25, the government has added names to its terror watch lists and no-fly lists. In addition, the Transportation Security Administration has directed airlines to give pat-down searches to travelers to the United States from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and 11 other countries.
Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is Nigerian, appeared on a database of suspected terrorists, but not on a smaller list that would have entailed closer scrutiny. Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent retired Nigerian banker, had warned the US Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s radical views.
Political heat rising
Going forward, the Obama administration faces a continuing challenge not only in sorting through what went on in the intelligence bureaucracy, but also in reassuring the public. In addition, as congressional committees prepare for hearings, the political din will likely rise.
In a statement, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, reacted to Obama’s remarks: “I hope President Obama’s words are followed by concrete actions to rectify shortcomings in our intelligence gathering, sharing, and utilization.”
Committee hearings begin Jan. 20.
Human rights watchdogs jumped on the news about suspended repatriations to Yemen, raising concerns about prisoners’ indefinite detention without trial.
“We understand that Yemen poses a very difficult problem for the administration,” said Letta Tayler, terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “But continuing to hold Yemenis without charge only increases resentment against the United States and hands Al Qaeda a recruiting tool.”
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