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Obama shoulders blame, orders revamped security measures

President Barack Obama


Declaring "we are at war," U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a sweeping revamp of no-fly lists and tighter screening measures to keep terrorists from attacking the United States.

At times echoing the bellicose tone of the man he replaced, Mr. Obama vowed to eliminate the threat posed by al-Qaeda as new and startling revelations emerged of a series of intelligence failures that allowed a known Muslim extremist to carry a powerful bomb onto a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day.

"We will do whatever it takes to defeat them," he said, turning to the language of war amid accusations that his initial reaction to the near-disaster had been too soft.

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The President spoke after an afternoon briefing with top intelligence and security officials, and personally shouldered the blame for the security debacle, borrowing Harry Truman's line, "The buck stops with me."

"Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had," Mr. Obama said.

According to officials in Yemen, the would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, may have met in that country with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical cleric who exchanged e-mails with Major Nidal Hasan before the U.S. Army psychiatrist went on a murderous rampage at the Fort Hood military base in November.

That same month, the Nigerian's father, a prominent banker, personally warned U.S. diplomats in Lagos that his son was espousing jihad. All this was known to, and reviewed by, multiple U.S. intelligence agencies weeks before the Christmas Day plot. It was also known that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches based in Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland, was plotting an attack on the United States.

Yet Mr. Abdulmutallab was never added to the no-fly list - a long, secret, and little-understood collection of thousands of names that includes Canadians such as Abousfian Abdelrazik and Maher Arar, both of whom have been cleared by Canadian antiterrorist agencies.

So glaring were the lapses in U.S. security that a six-page unclassified summary of the report released Thursday by the White House confirmed that Mr. Abdulmutallab would not have been put on the no-fly list unless all of the disparate bits of information about him had been correctly "fused." They weren't, and the routine metal-detector check at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport failed to find the 80 grams of high-explosives knitted into his underwear. Nor did the unusual circumstance of a Nigerian flying to Detroit in mid-winter on a tourist visa without a return ticket and no checked baggage trigger alarms for security personnel. Meanwhile, in Detroit, customs officers trolling the half-million-name "watch list" database fingered Mr. Abdulmutallab as sufficiently suspicious to be preselected for special questioning - after he landed in Detroit.

"In Schiphol, his name did not appear on any terrorist screening watch list, and so nothing pinged to keep him off of the plane," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday.

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In the immediate aftermath of the attempted bombing - it was averted only because other passengers overpowered Mr. Abdulmutallab after the bomb's chemical igniter failed to trigger an explosion - Ms. Napolitano had incautiously claimed the "system had worked."

But on Thursday, as the sheer scope of the failures became clearer, both the President and his national security team adopted a chastened position, coupled with sweeping promises to do better.

"I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer, for ultimately, the buck stops with me," Mr. Obama said. "It appears that this incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies."

That suggested that no one will be fired - at least not immediately - but Mr. Obama is clearly seized with the risks of seeming to be soft on terrorism. While he eschews Mr. Bush's phrase "war on terror," the President employed language strikingly similar to that of his predecessor.

"We are at war against al-Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again," Mr. Obama said.

"That's why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al-Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death, including the murder of fellow Muslims, while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress."

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