President Obama said there were bits of information that the U.S. intelligence community should have pieced together.
Alex Brandon / AP
HONOLULU - President Obama said yesterday that the intelligence community had bits of information that should have been pieced together that would have triggered "red flags" and possibly prevented the Christmas Day attempted terror attack on a Detroit-bound airliner.
"There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security," he said.
The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on one advisory list, but never made it onto more restrictive lists that would have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorist screeners, despite his father's warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month.
Those warnings also did not result in Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa being revoked.
And airport security equipment did not detect the bomb-making devices and materials he allegedly carried on board.
Mr. Obama said many things went right after the incident, with passengers and the flight crew subduing the man and government officials working quickly to increase security.
"What's also clear is this: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been … a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable," the President said.
Senior U.S. officials said intelligence authorities are now looking at conversations between the suspect in the failed attack and at least one al-Qaeda member. They did not say how these communications with Abdulmutallab took place - by Internet, cell phone, or another method.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the conversations were vague or coded, but the intelligence community believes that, in hindsight, the communications may have been referring to the Detroit attack.
One official said a link between the suspect's planning and al-Qaeda's goals was becoming clear.
Intelligence officials would not confirm whether those conversations involved Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but other U.S. government officials said there were initial indications that he was involved.
Al-Awlaki reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5.
Mr. Obama, interrupting his vacation to address the airliner attack, said, "There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have - and should have - been pieced together."
"Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."
Officials said Mr. Obama chose to make a second statement in as many days because a morning briefing offered him new information in the government's possession about the suspect's activities and thinking, along with al-Qaeda's plans.
Mr. Obama's statement showed more fire than he had shown previously about the lapses that allowed the bombing attack to take place and came after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had to backtrack on an assertion that "the system worked" in the Detroit airliner incident.
Some have criticized Mr. Obama for not addressing the issue publicly sooner.
Mr. Obama said he wanted a preliminary report by tomorrow on what went wrong on Christmas Day, when the suspect carried explosives onto a flight from Amsterdam despite the fact the suspect had possible ties to al-Qaeda.
It will take weeks for a more comprehensive investigation into what allowed the 23-year-old Nigerian to board the airplane he is accused of trying to blow up with more than 300 people aboard.
Law enforcement officials believe the suspect tried to ignite a two-part concoction of the high explosive PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive, setting off popping, smoke, and some fire but no deadly detonation. Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to destroy an aircraft, is being held at the federal prison in Milan, Mich.
Meanwhile, a newspaper reported that U.S. agents and Dutch counterterrorism officials are investigating whether a second man helped the Nigerian bombing suspect get on the flight to Detroit without a passport, as a man from Newport, Mich., said he saw before he boarded the flight.
Lori Haskell told the Detroit Free Press that FBI agents spoke with her and her husband, Kurt, yesterday morning after the two spoke to media outlets about Kurt Haskell's account that he saw an older, well-dressed Indian man help Abdulmutallab in his effort to board the flight in Amsterdam without a passport.
The Reuters news service reported that Dutch military police and Holland's national counterterrorism agency NCTb were reviewing closed-circuit video and any other evidence that might corroborate Mr. Haskell's account.
Sandra Berchtold, an FBI spokesman in Detroit, referred all media inquiries to the Department of Justice in Washington. A spokesman there declined comment.
Ms. Haskell said she was questioned for about 10 minutes and recognized a photo of the suspect from several that agents showed her. She said her husband was interviewed for at least an hour.
Mr. Haskell, 38, told the Detroit Free Press he first noticed Abdulmutallab at the airline ticket counter in Amsterdam.
He and his wife, both lawyers returning from a two-week safari in Uganda, were sitting near the counter playing cards.
Mr. Haskell said he saw the suspect, "who looked like he was 16 or 17, short, really thin, looked like he was poor," wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"He caught my eye because of who he was traveling with:" A wealthy-looking, well-dressed Indian man in his 50s.
The Indian man, Mr. Haskell said, told the ticket agent that the younger man "needs to board the plane, but he doesn't have a passport. … He's from Sudan. We do this all the time."
Abdulmutallab is actually from Nigeria and was traveling on a visa, American authorities confirmed yesterday.
Susan Chana Elliott, a spokesman for Delta, would not comment on Mr. Haskell's account. Northwest Airlines is a subsidiary of Delta.