HONOLULU - President Obama said yesterday that "a systemic failure" allowed the attempted Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam. He called it "totally unacceptable."
He also offered support for his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, who is under fire for her remarks that "the system worked."
The president said he wants preliminary results by tomorrow from two investigations he has ordered to examine the many lapses that occurred.
"There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security," Obama said.
It will take weeks for a more comprehensive investigation into what allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian carrying explosives onto the flight despite the fact the suspect had possible ties to al Qaeda, Obama said.
"It's essential that we diagnose the problems quickly," the president said, interrupting his vacation for a second consecutive day to address the incident, with more anger this time directed at the flaws in the U.S. system.
The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on one advisory list, but never made it onto more restrictive lists that would have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorist screeners, despite his father's warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month. Those warnings also did not result in Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa being revoked.
On top of that, airport-security equipment did not detect the bomb-making devices and materials he allegedly carried on board the Northwest Airlines flight carrying nearly 300 people.
Obama said many things went right after the incident, with passengers and the flight crew subduing the man and government officials working quickly to increase security. He singled out Napolitano, backing her much-criticized comments that the attempted terror attack showed the aviation security system worked.
"As Secretary Napolitano has said, once the suspect attempted to take down Flight 253, after his attempt, it's clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems, and our aviation security took all appropriate actions," Obama said.
Napolitano received so much criticism for her Sunday talk-show remarks that she did another round of interviews the following day to say the system did not work in preventing Abdulmutallab from getting on the plane with a bomb. But, she said, the response system did work after the man was subdued. She says her remarks were taken out of context.
Republicans are questioning her judgment and a few have called for her resignation. The White House says her job is safe.
However, Obama said: "What's also clear is this: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been . . . a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable."
White House aides declined to provide additional details behind the president's remarks, such as which "component" of the U.S. intelligence community dropped the ball related to the father's warning, and which other details should have been pieced together.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, who were unable to get the president's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration confirmed before they recessed for winter break, were pledging to act quickly upon their return in three weeks.
From his home state of Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that, when the Senate returns from recess, he would file a cloture motion to limit debate and move to a roll-call vote on the nomination of Erroll Southers, a California airport police official and former FBI special agent.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had held up Southers' confirmation earlier this month when Democrats sought to approve him by consent. The cloture process can take several days if those opposing a nominee choose to engage in lengthy debate. Southers has cleared two Senate committees with bipartisan support, but DeMint objected to what he believes are Democrats' plans to unionize the TSA.
DeMint said yesterday that Reid had "completely ignored this nominee for weeks until the recent terror attempt" and was now grandstanding. DeMint also indicated he was open to a compromise to limit debate.
Southers is the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence. He also is the associate director of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, and he served as a deputy director of homeland security for California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Two Senate committees cleared Southers with bipartisan support. An acting administrator is in place pending his confirmation.