WASHINGTON A grim-faced President Barack Obama declared Tuesday there was a deep failure of national intelligence in the botched Christmas Day airliner terror attack over Detroit, telling the nation the government had enough information to thwart potential disaster but could not "connect those dots."
Speaking after a blunt meeting with his security team, Obama said there had been even more "red flags" than had already been acknowledged: that an al-Qaida affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula planned to strike the United States and that it was working with the man who ended up accused of trying to blow up a plane with nearly 300 passengers and crew aboard.
"The information was there," Obama said, blistering agencies and analysts for not figuring out the threat but without singling any out by name.
"I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect," Obama said. "But it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it."
Obama never said who, if anyone, in the government might be held accountable, and the White House would not say whether any officials would be fired.
The president's own analysis is centered on identifying security gaps and filling them. In the course of that, he will determine whether anyone will lose his job, said one senior administration official familiar with Obama's thinking. The official spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Obama announced no new steps to improve the intelligence or security systems. But he promised they would be coming, signaling more changes for airport travelers and in the sharing of intelligence. And he made a point to recount every step his administration has taken since the Dec. 25 incident.
Since the attack, the government has added dozens of names to its lists of suspected terrorists and those barred from flights bound for the United States. People on the watch list are subject to additional scrutiny before they are allowed to enter this country, while anyone on the no-fly list is barred from boarding aircraft in or headed for the United States.
And the Transportation Security Administration directed airlines, beginning Monday, to give full-body, pat-down searches to U.S.-bound travelers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries.
One of those countries, Cuba, summoned the top U.S. diplomat on the island on Tuesday to protest extra screening for Cuban citizens flying into the United States, calling the new step "this hostile action."
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect who allegedly tried to set off an explosive device aboard the plane as it came in for a landing in Detroit, has told U.S. investigators he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. His father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son had drifted into extremism in the al-Qaida hotbed of Yemen, but that threat was never fully digested by the U.S. security apparatus.
"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."
"We have to do better, and we will do better. And we will do it quickly," he said."
Tight security and perhaps nerves was showing up far from the White House.
A Bakersfield, Calif., airport was temporarily shut down Tuesday after officials said a passenger's luggage tested positive for TNT. The suspicious material turned out to five bottles filled with honey.
As for Obama's meeting with security aides, the White House released a statement later quoting him as telling them: "This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable."
Obama also is suspending the transfer of Guantanamo prison detainees to Yemen. Nearly half of the 198 terror suspect detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are from that country. But Obama reiterated his vow to eventually close the camp.
"Make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo prison," Obama said. The camp, he said, "was an explicit rationale for the formation of al-Qaida" operating in Yemen.
In his late-afternoon remarks to the nation, Obama told reporters the security lapse didn't have to do with the collection of information but with the failure to integrate and analyze what was there. The bottom line, he said was that the government had "sufficient information to uncover this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack."
"Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list," he said. "This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already have."
Obama said that it was clear the government knew that the suspect, Abdulmutallab, had traveled to Yemen and joined with extremists there.
"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. 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," he said.
The later White House statement said the leaders of each agency at the meeting took responsibility for failures at their respective organizations and there was no attempt at the kind of finger-pointing Obama said he would not tolerate.
Before Obama's comments, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still has full confidence in his three top national security officials: Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
They were among the 20 high-level officials who sat down with Obama in the White House Situation Room for a meeting that lasted over 90 minutes.
Abdulmutallab remains in federal custody, charged with trying to destroy the Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit. He is alleged to have smuggled an explosive device onboard and set if off. The device sparked only a fire and not the intended explosion.