President George W. Bush was widely criticized for failing to focus before 9/11 on what U.S. intelligence knew of al-Qaeda's threat to America. But was President Barack Obama similarly remiss in the months before the attempted Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound airliner? So far, the White House hasn't provided enough information to make the judgment.
Obama ordered a review in the days after Christmas on the lapses that had allowed a suspect known to U.S. intelligence to board an airliner allegedly carrying explosives on his body. On Jan. 7, the President's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, laid out what he said were the facts of the failure. "It was known that AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that took responsibility for the attempted attack] not only sought to strike U.S. targets in Yemen," Brennan said, "but that it also sought to strike the U.S. homeland. Indeed, there was a threat stream of intelligence on this threat."
Brennan said the intelligence community had failed in not pursuing that threat stream and piecing it together with other information it had gathered. "We didn't follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence indicating that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sought to strike our homeland, because no one intelligence entity or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation. The intelligence fell through the cracks. This happened in more than one organization."
Did it happen at the White House?
While on vacation in Crawford, Texas, on Aug. 6, 2001, Bush received a warning that "bin Laden was determined to strike in U.S." and that al-Qaeda might hijack airliners. The threat was laid out in his Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), the specialized morning readout that winnows down mountains of raw data into a "finished intelligence" report and is one of the most important of the intelligence community's products.
It took more than a year for reporters to discover the existence of Bush's Aug. 6 PDB, but already questions are being put to the White House about Obama's briefings. Did any possible AQAP threat to the homeland ever appear in a PDB or any other briefing? How many times was Obama briefed on it? What threats were described? Did the President ask any follow-up questions? Did he task anyone to take any particular actions? Were any of AQAP's tactics, like explosives sewn into clothing, mentioned in briefings to the President?
The Administration has dodged some of these questions. When Brennan was asked on Jan. 7 when the specific threat posed to the homeland by AQAP first became known, he did not directly answer the question. He did acknowledge that he traveled to Saudi Arabia last September to investigate AQAP's attempted assassination of the kingdom's top counterterrorism official. That attack used explosives sewn into clothing and detonated with a chemical trigger, which is harder to detect than a traditional metal trigger.
On Monday, a senior Administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told TIME that after Brennan's trip, the U.S. intelligence community produced a finished-intelligence report noting that such "chemically triggered" bombs "would pose a particular challenge to screening efforts." Although there was no indication the bombs were intended for use against airliners, "our analysts did, however, assess that such IEDs of this new sort could be used in an aviation-focused attack," the official said.
Was any of this conveyed to the President? Said the senior Administration official: "We are not going to comment on specifically what was included in PDB product or whether President Obama was briefed on a specific matter at a specific time. Also we are not going to comment on who tasks what follow-up actions in response to specific threats." The official said that Obama and his national-security team "routinely ask for more detailed information and explanations of what follow-up steps are being taken to address particular threat streams and to respond to known terrorist threats." The official said Obama was briefed on AQAP threats to U.S. interests in the Arabian Gulf region.
So, in the run-up to the Dec. 25 attempt, it appears that the U.S. intelligence community had warned that there was a new, dangerous type of bomb being deployed by AQAP; that this new bomb could be used against planes; and that AQAP sought to strike the U.S. homeland. Further, the intelligence community knew that a radicalized Nigerian was in Yemen and that his father thought he might be planning some kind of "jihad," according to reports following the bomb attempt.
We still don't know what, if any of this, the President was told or what he did about it. The Administration has appointed former CIA chief John McLaughlin to investigate the matter further. And that means it may be weeks, if not months, before we can draw final conclusions about Obama's performance in handling his most important mission keeping the country safe.