Obama summoning intelligence chiefs
By Margaret Talev
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON — President Obama closed 2009 on a somber note, consoling the CIA over seven officers and contractors killed Wednesday in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber and receiving preliminary findings on intelligence failures that enabled a Nigerian with alleged Islamic extremist ties to board a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas Day with explosives in his underwear.
In a statement released yesterday from Kailua, where the president is vacationing with his family, Obama said he would meet Tuesday in Washington with multiple agency heads to address the investigation and the next steps.
Obama said he had spoken in the morning with his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, regarding "preliminary assessments" of what went wrong; and with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about enhanced detection and security measures that are being implemented.
"I anticipate receiving assessments from several agencies this evening and will review those tonight and over the course of the weekend," Obama said.
In Washington, some federal agencies were moving to improve their procedures even before Obama reacted to early findings.
A senior U.S. official said the State Department intends to institute a change in which U.S. embassies that receive any information about a person of interest or concern and cable that information back to federal agencies in Washington, would now also automatically notify agencies of that person's visa status.
That didn't happen in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 carrying explosives.
Obama has aggressively sought to preserve his family vacation, even as he has juggled national security updates, televised statements and partisan criticism related to the Christmas Day incident.
After speaking with Brennan and Napolitano, the president headed off to the movies with his wife and daughters and some family friends for a special 3-D screening of "Avatar" in a Kāne'ohe mall theater they had all to themselves. Later, the president played golf at Mid-Pacific Country Club.
New Year's Eve marked the end of a dark decade for the nation, but offered no end to the unease that has plagued the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama has said a mix of "human and systemic failures" led to poor communication, and that if the system had worked the way it was intended to, Abdulmutallab never would have been permitted to board Northwest Flight 253 for Detroit. Multiple reviews are now under way, and Congress is planning hearings.
Officials say disaster was averted a week ago because Abdulmutallab botched his attempt to ignite his explosives and because other passengers acted quickly — not because of U.S. intelligence or flight safety measures.
The suspect's father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria weeks earlier of his son's extremist connections, and U.S. intelligence agencies may have known months earlier about a possible Nigerian threat but didn't connected the dots.
As a result, Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa remained valid, and officials didn't add his name to a no-fly or enhanced airport screening list.
In Yemen, security officials said yesterday that Abdulmutallab had overstayed his visa by nearly three months at the time he left the country in early December. A probe was looking into why airport and passport officials did not detain him given the discrepancies in his paperwork.
U.S. officials were looking for any links between Abdulmutallab, al-Qaida and any other recent terrorist- or suspicious airplane-related incidents.
Yesterday, The Associated Press reported that two former U.S. officials said that the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees at a remote outpost in southeastern Afghanistan had been invited onto the base and had not been searched.
A former senior intelligence official said the man was being courted as an informant and that it was the first time he had been brought inside the camp. An experienced CIA debriefer came from Kabul for the meeting, suggesting that the purpose was to gain intelligence, the official said.
The CIA would not confirm the details, and said it was still gathering evidence on the incident.
A separate U.S. official suggested the bomber may have set off the explosives as he was about to be searched.
Among those killed was the chief of the CIA post, whom former officials identified as a mother of three. Six more agency personnel were wounded in what was considered the most lethal attack for the CIA since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001 and possibly even since the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut. It also was the single deadliest attack for Americans in Afghanistan since eight soldiers were killed in an insurgent attack on a base in the east on Oct. 3.
Obama yesterday wrote in a message to the CIA that "the men and women who gave their lives in Afghanistan did their duty with courage, honor and excellence, and we must draw strength from the example of their sacrifice."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.