WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama suggested Thursday he would not fire anyone for the attempted Christmas airline attack, saying it appears the security lapses that led to the near-disaster were not the fault of a single individual or institution.
"Ultimately the buck stops with me," said the commander-in-chief.
He declared anew that the government had the information to prevent the botched attack but failed to piece it together. He announced a range of changes designed to fix that, including wider and quicker distribution of intelligence reports, stronger analysis of them and new terror watch list rules.
But, added Obama, "When the system fails, it is my responsibility."
He spoke from the State Dining Room, his remarks delayed twice as officials scrambled to declassify a report on the failures. That report was released immediately after he spoke.
The White House is anxious to resolve and move beyond the issue, which threatens to damage the president politically and distract further from his agenda.
The unclassified six-page summary of the report given to Obama stated that U.S. intelligence officials had received unspecified "discrete pieces of intelligence" to identify 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an al-Qaeda operative and keep him off the plane. Officials received fragments of information as early as October, according to the report.
Although intelligence officials knew that an al-Qaeda operative in Yemen posed a threat to U.S. security, officials did not increase their focus on that threat and did not pull together fragments of data needed to foil the scheme, said the summary.
While the administration's report notes problems in pursuing separate pieces of intelligence gathered before the attempted attack, it concludes "the watch listing system is not broken" and a reorganization of the nation's counterterrorism system is not necessary. The report, instead, calls for strengthening the process used to add suspected terrorists to watch lists.
According to the report, "a series of human errors" occurred, including a delay in the dissemination of a completed intelligence report and the failure of CIA and counterterrorism officers to search all available databases for information that could have been tied to Abdulmutallab.
Unlike the run-up to the 2001 terrorist attacks, intelligence officials shared information. But authorities didn't understand what they had.
Republicans have pointed to the attack and Obama's handling of it to criticize him as weak on national security – a perennial election-season charge against Democrats that has sometimes been effective in the past.
Clearly aware of the potential political fallout, Obama struck a tough tone toward the anti-terror fight – taking the rare step for him of calling it a "war."
"We are at war, we are at war against al-Qaeda," he said. "We will do whatever it takes to defeat them."
Obama hinted at the difficulties of improving intelligence and security against a terrorist network that devises new methods as fast or faster than the U.S. does.
"There is, of course, no foolproof solution," he said. "We have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary."
The president seemed to settle the question of whom to blame by declaring that blame was shared by many.
"Now at this stage in the review process, it appears that this incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies," he said.
He ordered all involved agency heads to set up internal accountability units to review efforts to make changes.
"We will measure progress," he said.
Underscoring Obama's assertion that no one individual was responsible for failing to thwart the attack, the administration's report noted that Abdulmutallab's name was misspelled in one instance, leading the State Department to conclude he did not have a valid U.S. visa – when in fact he did. Even so, the report said steps to revoke his visa could have occurred only if other intelligence information had been coordinated and he was placed on a more restrictive watch list.
Meanwhile on Thursday, many airlines were re-briefing employees on security procedures, from baggage handlers to pilots.
"Everybody is being reminded of what the rules of the road are," said Jack Casey, an aviation safety consultant in Washington.
There's a limit, though, to how much airlines can do on their own, said Casey, a former airline pilot. "They're waiting for better guidance from everybody in government over this whole issue of profiling and the issue of privacy. That's a big gray area."
Photo: President Barack Obama