Obama Takes Responsibility as White House Tries to Slow Blame Game

Only moments after President Obama declared Thursday afternoon that the failed underpants bombing attack was a result of systemic rather than individual lapses and took personal responsibility for what he has described as "failures," the White House released a sketchy report that did cast some blame more directly. The report says that analysts at both the National Counterterrorism Center, set up after 9/11 to coordinate intelligence sharing about terror threats, and at the CIA were responsible for what's known in the spy business as "all-source" analysis of threats. "Therefore," the report says, "both agencies─NCTC and CIA─have a role to play in conducting (and a responsibility to carry out) all source analysis to identify operatives and uncover specific plots like the attempted December 25 attack." The report notes that over the last several months, U.S. intelligence agencies collected "pieces of information about [alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab, information about AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and its planes, and information about an individual now believed to be Mr. Abdulmutallab and his association with AQAP and its attack planning." But it adds that although "all of that information was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and NCTC prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected ..." As a result, "the problem appears to be more about a component failure to 'connect the dots' rather than a lack of information sharing."

While clearly pointing fingers at the NCTC and CIA, the White House report also acknowledges that the bits and pieces of information available to analysts at these agencies was "fragmentary and embedded in a large volume of other data." As Declassified noted earlier this week, the massive volume of raw data collected can make it very difficult to find what could be very important needles in giant haystacks.

Although Obama explicitly eschewed blaming individuals, the aftermath of the Christmas Day fiasco became personal today for one senior official at the heart of the uproar, when the New York Daily News reported that Michael Leiter, the former federal prosecutor and Navy flier who heads the NCTC, "did not cut short" a ski vacation he embarked on after the Dec. 25 attack failed. People familiar with Leiter's situation, however, say he is likely getting a raw deal: two officials familiar with what went on after the attack failed say that Leiter was actually in his NCTC office in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., on Christmas Day. The next day, the officials said, he had planned to go on a long-scheduled family vacation, but after the airplane incident, he phoned several more-senior officials and volunteered to cancel his vacation to handle the fallout from the underpants incident. But his superiors─some of whom themselves either were or soon left on vacation─strongly urged Leiter to stick to his plan and go on vacation, so he left Washington. Throughout his vacation, one intelligence official says, Leiter remained in secure communications with NCTC and also took part in multiple calls with NCTC, the White House, the Office of National Intelligence Director, and other agencies.

At the same time it was dissecting his agency's performance, the White House stepped forward to defend Leiter's performance, with Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff and one of Obama's principal honchos on the Christmas Day attack's aftermath, weighing in with a lengthy statement of support for Leiter. Said McDonough, "Director Leiter was─throughout the events of December 25, 2009─indeed at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, and intimately involved in all aspects of the nation's response to the attempted terrorist attack─to include coordinating intelligence, examining terrorist watchlisting, and briefing Members of Congress. During the following days, Director Leiter engaged in regular, repeated, and extended classified discussions with the White House, the President's National Security Staff located in Hawaii, the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, various members of Congress and their staffs, and of course the National Counterterrorism Center. Only after explicit consultations with both the White House and the Director of National Intelligence and considering the current threat environment did Director Leiter take six days of annual leave after the event, which again did not affect in any way his ability to remain engaged with all elements of the United States Government."

The CIA says it is already taking steps to improve its handling of terrorist-threat information. George Little, an agency spokesman, says, "Before the Detroit incident, the CIA collected and shared information about Abdulmutallab with other agencies. The CIA has taken a close look at how we can do even more to support our government's efforts to disrupt terrorist plots."

Little adds that earlier this week, CIA Director Leon Panetta had specifically ordered the agency to implement several new measures, including: formally disseminating information on suspected extremists and terrorists within 48 hours; expanding name traces on possible extremists and terrorists; reviewing information on individuals from countries of concern to determine whether the agency should recommend changes to their status on U.S. government watch lists; and increasing the number of analysts focused on Yemen and Africa, areas that have been of concern to the agency for a long time.