Speaking yesterday at the White House after meeting for the first time since the Christmas terrorist attack with his whole national security team, President Obama minced no words about failure of the U.S. Government to head off this mortal threat.
President Obama said Tuesday that the government had sufficient information to uncover the terror plot to bring down a commercial jetliner on Christmas Day, but that intelligence officials had “failed to connect those dots.”
“This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” Mr. Obama said after meeting with his national security team for nearly two hours. “It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.”
I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong,” said Mr. Obama, who was speaking in the Grand Foyer of the White House. “I want those reforms implemented immediately, so that this doesn’t happen again and so we can prevent future attacks.”
Mr. Obama’s stark assessment that the government failed to properly analyze and integrate intelligence served as a sharp rebuke of the country’s intelligence agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the organization set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to ensure that the government had a central clearinghouse for spotting, assessing and thwarting terrorist threats.
But Mr. Obama insisted that he was not interested in getting into a blame game. White House officials said the president was standing by his top national security advisers, including those whose agencies failed to communicate with one another.
But here's the serious trouble with that. Mr. President: if everyone is to blame for a major failure to protect the American people, then no one is to blame. Saying you'll hold people accountable is pretty much meaningless, if you don't actually hold anyone accountable!
The "system" that "failed" wasn't set up yesterday and needs some time to work out the bugs. The National Counterterrorism Center was set up in 2004 and placed under the new Director of National Intelligence when the latter office was established in early 2005. The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center was created in 2003. And the Department of Homeland Security was established by Congress in 2002. All the other involved agencies have been around much longer.
So if someone "screwed up," in the President's words, who was it? If Obama, Congress and the rest of us don't know, how can we be sure the problem or problems ever get fixed?
Was it the National Counterterrorism Center, which was set up pursuant to the 9/11 Commission's recommendation precisely to connect the dots? Was it the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center which maintains the U.S. Government's consolidated terrorist watch lists? Was it CIA officers in Nigeria or at Langley? Was it the State Department? Did DHS drop the ball? NSA had some intercepts, we're told, but did they share everything? And what about the Brits' report that their intelligence officials shared important information tying Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to extremists a year ago? Last but not least, has the White House been on top of potential problems and fixes for them in the year since Obama took office?
No one should let any of this drop unless and until we see the actual people who screwed up directly or indirectly by virtue of their management or policy-making responsibilities pay a price.
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