/ 7 January 2010

Obama presses security overhaul, Nigerian indicted

US President Barack Obama is “not patient” and is demanding immediate changes in airline security, the top US military officer said on Wednesday, as a grand jury indicted a Nigerian man for trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was concern that potential extremists could be inspired by the bombing attempt blamed on 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the attempt, one of the most serious US security breaches and intelligence breakdowns since the September 11 attacks.

“Certainly there is the concern that this would bring more, generate more support from young males who might be on the fence about what to do with their lives,” Mullen said.

A grand jury in Michigan indicted Abdulmutallab on six counts, including attempted murder of the other 289 passengers and crew on board the plane, and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. He faces life in prison, if convicted.

The bomb, which Abdulmutallab has told investigators was given to him by al-Qaeda in Yemen, contained the highly explosive ingredients Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate, or PETN, and Triacetone Triperoxide, or TATP, the indictment said.

US Attorney General Eric Holder held out the possibility of others being charged, saying, “Anyone we find responsible for this alleged attack will be brought to justice using every tool — military or judicial — available to our government.”

Jitters have gripped the US travel industry in the aftermath of the bombing attempt. In the latest security scare, an unruly passenger on a Hawaii-bound airliner on Wednesday prompted the pilot to return the plane to Portland, Oregon, escorted by two military fighter jets.

Obama called the Detroit incident a potentially disastrous “screw-up” by the intelligence community during a two-hour meeting with his national security team on Tuesday.

“The president — he’s not patient about this at all. These changes have to be made immediately,” Mullen told university students at a seminar in Washington.

The Los Angeles Times, citing senior law enforcement officials, reported on Wednesday that US border security officials learned of intelligence about Abdulmutallab’s alleged extremist links as he was en route to Detroit and had decided to question him when he landed.

“The … database had picked up the State Department concern about this guy, that this guy may have been involved with extremist elements in Yemen. … They could have made a decision on whether to stop him from getting on the plane,” the Times quoted a senior law enforcement official as saying.

Obama will address the issue again in a public statement on Thursday, when the White House will release a review that will make recommendations on plugging holes in security, including changes in passenger screening and terrorism watch lists.

“The review will simply identify and make recommendations as to what was lacking and what needs to be strengthened,” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said, adding it would be “comprehensive”.

Intelligence sharing
US spy agencies and the State Department had information about Abdulmutallab but they never pieced it together to put him on a no-fly list. Instead, passengers and crew subdued the Nigerian bomb suspect as he tried to detonate the device.

Mullen said part of the problem was intelligence sharing and filtering through the extraordinary amount of data collected by US spy agencies.

“It does have to do with sharing information and it does have to do with huge bureaucracies. And we collect an extraordinary amount of data,” Mullen said.

Obama has been lambasted by Republicans who accuse his Democratic administration of being weak on terrorism and unable to fix intelligence gaps that have lingered since the September 11 2001, attacks on the United States involving hijacked planes.

Senior Republican lawmakers on Wednesday called on Obama to take more concrete steps to improve security and challenged the decision to try Abdulmutallab in federal court.

“All jihadist attackers should be charged as enemy combatants, taken into military custody, interrogated for vital intelligence, and tried in military courts under the laws of armed conflict,” they said in a letter to Obama.

Since the Christmas bombing attempt, there has been finger- pointing within the US intelligence community, including at the National Counterterrorism Centre, created in 2004 to serve as the main repository for counterterrorism intelligence.

Asked whether people might lose their jobs over the incident, Gibbs said, “I don’t know what the final outcome in terms of hiring and firing will be.”

“This is a failure that touches across the full waterfront of our intelligence agencies,” he said. – Reuters