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Obama: U.S. intel had information ahead of airliner attack

December 29, 2009

HONOLULU (AP) -- President Barack Obama said Tuesday 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.

His criticism came as senior U.S. officials told The Associated Press that intelligence authorities now are looking at conversations between the suspect in the failed attack, a 23-year-old Nigerian, and at least one al-Qaida member. 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-Qaida's goals was becoming more clear.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of al-Qaida there were talking about "a Nigerian" being prepared for a terrorist attack. The newspaper said the information did not include the name of the Nigerian.

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The officials who spoke with the AP did not say how these communications with the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, took place -- by Internet, cell phone or another method. Intelligence officials also 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.

"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," Obama said in a brief statement to the media. "The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."

"There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security," the president said.

Officials said 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-Qaida's plans.

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 his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, had to backtrack on an assertion that "the system worked" in the Detroit airliner scare. Some have criticized Obama for not addressing the issue publicly sooner.

An angered Obama called the shortcomings "totally unacceptable" and told reporters traveling with him on vacation here that he wanted a preliminary report by Thursday 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-Qaida.

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.

Obama, interrupting his vacation to address the airliner attack, said, "It's essential that we diagnose the problems quickly."

"There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have -- and should have -- been pieced together," he said.

Abdulmutallab had been placed in one government advisory system, 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.

The CIA said it worked with embassy officials to make sure that Abdulmutallab's name made it into the government's database of suspected terrorists and noted his potential extremist connections in Yemen. The CIA also said it forwarded that information to the National Counterterrorism Center.

"We learned of him in November, when his father came to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and sought help in finding him. We did not have his name before then," CIA spokesman George Little said.

One U.S. intelligence official said the father's statement alone would not have -- on its own -- stopped the attack.

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