WASHINGTON - President Obama said yesterday that a "mix of human and systemic failures" allowed a Nigerian student carrying an explosive to board an airplane on Christmas Day, and he vowed to quickly fix flaws that could have doomed a flight carrying nearly 300 passengers and crew members.
The president and his top advisers now believe there is "some linkage" with al-Qaeda, and the administration is "increasingly confident" that the terror group worked with suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to secure the chemical mixture that he took aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The government also had intelligence suggesting a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaeda around Christmastime, White House officials said.
The New York Times reported yesterday that the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of al-Qaeda there were talking about "a Nigerian" being prepared for a terrorist attack. The newspaper said the information did not include the name of the Nigerian.
Obama's stark remarks came two days after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that information provided by the suspect's father before the failed bombing plot was so vague that it did not merit further investigation. Napolitano also said that "the system worked" in this incident, drawing a political outcry from GOP lawmakers and national-security experts.
As the Obama administration reviewed the government's actions yesterday, investigators in Yemen visited an Arabic language institute attended by Abdulmutallab and asked about his ties to a mosque in the capital.
Administrators, teachers, and fellow students at the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language said that Abdulmutallab had attended school for only the month of Ramadan, which began in late August. That has raised questions about what he did during the rest of his stay, which continued into December.
Abdulmutallab, 23, told U.S. officials after his arrest that he had received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, a law enforcement official has said.
In the United States, FBI agents conducted fresh interviews of each passenger on the Detroit-bound flight and focused their attention on Abdulmutallab's last six months, a time when investigators suspect that the Nigerian student grew increasingly radicalized, according to two federal officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Over the last year, Abdulmutallab intensified electronic communications with the extremist Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, the federal sources said. Aulaqi also had corresponded with the Army major charged in the Fort Hood killings last month, officials have said.
From his vacation spot in Hawaii, the president blamed lapses in sharing information after Abdulmutallab's father alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria last month about his son, who had embraced radical views and cut off ties to the prosperous family. Government officials said they already have identified faulty systems and failures to follow procedure, and Obama has demanded preliminary results of a review by tomorrow.
"It now appears that, weeks ago, this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list," Obama said. "Had this critical information been shared . . . the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."
The president added later: "A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable."
Intelligence officials said they were eager to improve their system to close whatever gaps the Abdulmutallab case may have exposed. But several expressed puzzlement and irritation over Obama's reference to "bits of information available within the intelligence community" that, if "pieced together," might have triggered "red flags" about the Nigerian.
"Abdulmutallab's father didn't say his son was a terrorist" when he visited the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, "let alone planning an attack. Not at all," one U.S. intelligence official said. "I'm not aware of some magic piece of intelligence that suddenly would have flagged this guy - whose name nobody even had until November - as a killer en route to America, let alone something that anybody withheld."
Yemeni Information Minister Hassan al-Lozy suggested the United States was partly to blame for his country's failure to identify Abdulmutallab as a terror suspect. He told a news conference that Washington never shared its suspicions about the man.
"We didn't get any notice from the Americans to put this man on a list," Lozy said. "America should have told Yemen about this man."
Lozy said that Abdulmutallab had received a Yemeni visa to study Arabic after authorities were reassured that he had "several visas from a number of countries that we are cooperating with in the fight against terror." He noted that Abdulmutallab had a valid visa to the United States, which he had visited before.
In its claim of responsibility for the attempted bombing, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said it had provided Abdulmutallab with a sophisticated explosive that did not go off because of a malfunction.
Internet postings purportedly written by Abdulmutallab suggest a fervently religious and lonely young man who fantasized about becoming a Muslim holy warrior. Throughout more than 300 posts, a user named "Farouk1986" reflects on a growing alienation from his family, his shame over sexual urges, and his hopes that a "great jihad" will take place across the world.
While officials have not verified that the postings were written by Abdulmutallab, details from the posts match his personal history.
Yesterday, Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili said Abdulmutallab had told his parents a few months ago that he wanted to study sharia law, a strict Islamic code, something his father said he could not do. Abdulmutallab responded by sending a text message from an unknown cell-phone number saying he never would talk to his family again, Akunyili said.
Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid (D., Nev.) will force a vote on President Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration when the Senate reconvenes in three weeks.
Reid's announcement yesterday that he will file
a cloture motion follows the alleged attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.
Reid had sought Senate consent to confirm TSA nominee Erroll Southers without floor debate, along with other nominations, before the Senate adjourned Christmas Eve.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) objected, calling for more debate and temporarily halting the confirmation, as part of DeMint's opposition to unionizing the TSA, a move he believes Obama will push.
White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said yesterday that while the acting TSA administrator, Gale Rossides, was "very able," DeMint and any others inclined to delay
the vote "should put
their short-term political interests aside."
DeMint said Reid had "completely ignored this nominee for weeks" until Friday's air incident and was now grandstanding.
- McClatchy Newspapers