President Barack Obama has ordered a review of how U.S. intelligence organizations keep the skies safe — or don’t, as demonstrated by a failed Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam.
Obama has not yet tapped someone to head the multi-agency probe, but White House officials acknowledge the recent incident involving a 23-year-old Nigerian with alleged ties to terrorists has made clear there are plenty of failed areas to examine. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on one advisory list, but never caught the attention of U.S. counter terrorist screeners despite his father’s warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month.
“The gathering of information, as it relates to the watch lists, has begun,” said Denis McDonough, the chief of staff to the National Security Council. “We began to gather that data, and we’ll continue to gather more.”
But no one is yet running the investigation, said McDonough, one of the president’s top advisers, who spoke to reporters traveling with the vacationing president in Hawaii.
The separate Obama-ordered review of security procedures facing the millions of airline travelers each year is under way under the authority of the Homeland Security Department. That probe, officials said, centers on how Abdulmutallab was able to get aboard a United States-bound plane with materials that might have brought down the plane during its final hour in the air.
Calling Abdulmutallab’s action an “attempted act of terrorism,” Obama vowed Monday to “do everything that we can to keep America safe” and declared: “The United States will more than simply strengthen our defenses. We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us.”
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the thwarted attack as retaliation for a U.S. operation against the group in Yemen. A statement posted on the Internet by the group said Abdulmutallab coordinated with members of the group and used explosives manufactured by al-Qaida members.
McDonough said the United States had not authenticated the Web posting.
“We have no independent verification of that claim, but obviously the president has made very clear — now, over the course of several months — his concern about al-Qaida affiliates, the rise of global extremist organizations and al-Qaida affiliates in other countries,” McDonough said.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, questioned how a man flagged as a possible terrorist managed to board a commercial flight into the United States carrying powerful explosives and nearly bring down the jetliner. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Monday that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he chairs would hold hearings in January.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven, Matt Lee, Eileen Sullivan, Lolita Baldor and Devlin Barrett in Washington; Pamela Hess in New York; Ed White in Detroit; Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria; Donna Abu-Nasr in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Mark Niesse in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, contributed to this report.