WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials had had more warnings about the alleged Dec. 25 airplane attacker, including reports that al-Qaida was working with him and the group was planning attacks on American targets in Yemen and the United States.
"The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list," Obama said at the White House.
"It now turns out that our intelligence community knew of other red flags that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike not only American targets in Yemen, but the United States itself," he said.
"And we had information that this group was working with an individual who... we now know was in fact the individual involved in the Christmas attack."
Obama spoke after he met with his top security advisers, pressing for answers about how the government failed to heed warning signs and allowed 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a Detroit-bound plane, allegedly with explosives in his underwear.
Obama and his aides worked to assure the American public that it's safe and to quell criticism from Republicans over the administration's handling of the case.
"When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way," Obama said. "And it's my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future."
He said his top aides and Cabinet officers took responsibility for failures in their agencies or departments.
The president was more direct in his meeting with top aides.
"This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous," he told them, according to the White House. "We dodged a bullet, but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable. While there will be a tendency for finger-pointing, I will not tolerate it."
Obama promised to announce new measures within days to ward off attacks, including policies to converge disparate intelligence and to screen airline passengers better. He noted that the Department of Homeland Security is working with the Department of Energy to use the best technology available, presumably to find the kinds of explosives that went undetected on Christmas.
Obama said the lapses wouldn't change his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that he wouldn't release any more detainees to Yemen for the foreseeable future.