John Brennan rails on Dick Cheney, explains 'systemic failure'

John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrism aide, offered a strong rebuke of Dick Cheney's criticism and suggested that post-9/11 intelligence-gathering networks still can't bring all the relevant information together.

William B. Plowman/Meet The Press/AP
John Brennan, President Obama's top terrorism adviser, appears on 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios Sunday in Washington.

John Brennan, President Obama’s top terrorism adviser, rallied to the defense of the administration Sunday, taking on critic-in-chief Dick Cheney and explaining the deep-seated “systemic failure” that Obama mentioned in comments last week.

Mr. Obama has come under heavy criticism from Republicans since an attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit failed on Christmas Day, primarily because the man charged in the incident, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on a US terrorism watch list.

Mr. Cheney has arguably been the most pointed in his criticism of Obama, declaring last week that the president “is trying to pretend that we are not at war” by his decision to delay any public comments about the attack for several days and by changing some Bush-era antiterrorism policies.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Mr. Brennan said the former vice president was either lying or ignorant. "Either the vice president is willfully mischaracterizing this president's position – both in terms of language he uses, and the actions he's taken – or he's ignorant of the fact.”

Brennan, who noted that he has worked for presidents of both parties, said he was “disappointed” by the partisan reaction to the Christmas bombing attempt.

System can't sift the relevant clues

In other ways, however, Sunday marked a dialing back of the partisan rhetoric. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee and one of the fiercest administration critics in recent days, acknowledged that no terrorist tracking system is perfect.

“It's a reality [that] it's very, very difficult to stop every single attack,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It doesn't mean that we should stop trying to improve the mechanisms that we put in place.”

His comments built upon those of Brennan, who said that the US still doesn’t have the capacity to sift the most important material from reams of data on potential terrorists.

Speaking on “This Week,” Brennan acknowledged the US intelligence agencies had “a number of streams of information” about Mr. Abdulmutallab, including a warning from his father and “little snippets” from Al Qaeda intercepts that mentioned parts of his name and a Nigerian asset. But there was no smoking gun, he added.

The incident showed that the reforms taken after 9/11 have not yet created a system that is “able to put all that information together,” he said.

What's ahead on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers agreed with Brennan and suggested that the issue could be a focus of congressional hearings scheduled for this month.

“In 2004, we focused on making sure that we were collecting all of the information that we needed to collect,” said Mr. Hoekstra, speaking of post-9/11 reforms.

“The challenge that we now face is that we are collecting so much information, we are sharing it, we now need to develop the capabilities to do a better job of analysis,” he added.


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