WASHINGTON (AFP) – An angry President Barack Obama has lectured US spy chiefs on an intelligence “screw-up” that left a US airliner carrying 290 people open to a barely-averted Al-Qaeda attack on Christmas Day.
In a highly unusual public rebuke of the US clandestine community, Obama on Tuesday made a terse televised statement about the thwarted bombing, after gathering agency chiefs and national security aides at a high-stakes White House meeting.
Hours after his statement, Yemen police on Wednesday arrested a key Al-Qaeda chief believed to be behind threats that saw several foreign missions in the capital Sanaa, including the US embassy, close their doors.
Yemen has been under increasing pressure in recent days to deal with the Al-Qaeda cell in the country which Obama has blamed for being behind the airliner plot.
Mohammed al-Hanq had evaded arrest on Monday during a security force raid in Arhab, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Sanaa, in which two of his relatives were killed and three other people wounded.
During the televised remarks, Obama suggested that missed “red flags” before the airliner attack were more serious than originally thought. Related article: Obama raged at intel ‘screw up’
“It is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged,” Obama said. “That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.”
He was more explicit during the meeting in the secure White House Situation Room, an official said, calling for immediate repairs to the flawed US security system.
“This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted Obama as saying in the meeting.
“We dodged a bullet but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked,” the president said, according to the official.
Obama’s sharply worded comments contrasted with some of his earlier statements on the botched attack, which had led to criticism that his response lacked a sense of urgency.
Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, is accused of trying to bring down the Northwest jet outside Detroit with explosives sewn into his underwear. Passengers and crew sprung into action, thwarting his attempted attack.
The United States has since unleashed a barrage of measures to stop would-be attackers riding planes into the country, overhauling its terror watchlists and adding dozens more suspects to “no-fly” lists.
All travelers coming from or via 14 “terror linked” countries will have to undergo compulsory enhanced screening.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Abdulmutallab “spent a number of hours with FBI investigators in which we gleaned usable, actionable intelligence.”
The president also announced he would suspend transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Yemen, but vowed he would make good on his promise to close the camp.
“We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda,” Obama said.
Obama said probes into the botched plot to blow up the airliner showed US intelligence missed other red flags related to Abdulmutallab, who had previously traveled to Yemen.
He said US intelligence knew that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wanted to strike not only US targets in Yemen but in the United States itself over the holiday season.
“The bottom line is this: the US government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots,” Obama said.
“This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.
“When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way.”
Obama’s national intelligence chief acknowledged shortcomings.
“We got it, and we are moving forward to meet the new challenges,” Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said in a statement.
Obama vowed to lay out further steps to safeguard aviation security in the coming weeks. Related article: US court rules on terror powers
Many experts have expressed incredulity that Abdulmutallab was able to travel on a valid US visa, despite his suspected ties to extremists.
The US embassy in Yemen reopened Tuesday after the two-day closure prompted by fears of an attack, while the French embassy in Sanaa reopened Wednesday after its own two-day closure.
The British embassy also reopened Wednesday but its consular services remained closed.