Obama Briefed on Homeland Terror Threats

top-secret-folderThe president and his key national security advisors were warned about a possible terrorist attack just three days before the failed Detroit plot, Mark Hosenball reports for Newsweek.

President Barack Obama received a high-level briefing only three days before Christmas about possible holiday-period terrorist threats against the US, Newsweek has learned. The briefing was centered on a written report, produced by US intelligence agencies, entitled “Key Homeland Threats”, a senior US official said.

The senior Administration official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that nowhere in this document was there any mention of Yemen, whose Al-Qaeda affiliate is now believed to have been behind the unsuccessful Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a transatlantic airliner with a bomb hidden in his underpants. However, the official declined to disclose any other information about the substance of the briefing, including what kind of specific warnings, if any, the President was given about possibly holiday attacks and whether Yemen came up during oral discussions.

This naturally brings to mind the report President Bush got a few days before the 9/11 attacks warning that al Qaeda was hoping to strike the U.S. As with that briefing, the fact that the president failed to stop the attack from occurring looks bad.   After all, he had warning!  But it’s not at all clear what, precisely, either man should or could have done differently.  These briefings, while seemingly detailed in hindsight, are incredibly vague.

Beyond that, even if Obama had been told that they’re received information that an al Qaeda operative was flying into the country from overseas during the holidays with a bomb in his under drawers — which, again, is massively more information than we had available — it’s not obvious what he could have done about it.   We’re already complaining about the new security procedures that got put into place post-attempt — rightly so, since they wouldn’t have helped.  It would have been difficult to justify them beforehand.

There’s room to criticize the administration’s response to the crisis, most notably DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s idiotic insistence that “the system worked.”  But the idea that the president was somehow supposed to stop the underwear bomber based on vague intelligence of an increased terrorism risk over the holidays is unreasonable.

FILED UNDER: General, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. just me says:

    I always thought criticisms of Bush for “knowing ahead of time” and “failing to stop it” or even worse wanting it to happen because he was given a vague, non specific or at least not specific enough warning to really stop anything were pretty poor criticisms. I pretty much feel the same here.

    It does sound like the US should do a better job of actually screening terrorists though. I think the breakdown here is that so much of our airport security is smoke and mirrors that makes the average traveler jump through hoops but does little to actually stop terrorists. Security should be seeking to stop terrorists and it sounds like the US ignored concerns about the most recent one.

  2. narciso says:

    Until we see the actual briefing, I don’t think the benefir of the doubt should be given. As one recalls
    the August PDB was actually less informative than
    the December ’98 one..

  3. NedFrigginLamont says:

    James,

    Here’s what Napolitano said:

    “Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork, not only sharing throughout the air industry, but also sharing with state and local law enforcement. Products were going out on Christmas Day, they went out yesterday, and also to the industry to make sure that the traveling public remains safe. I would leave you with that message. The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures, in light of this incident, but, again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.”

    I would appreciate it if you could explain how that qualifies as either insistence or idiotic. It would appear, rather, to be something that has idiotically been taken out of context, insistently.

  4. Amy says:

    I think you missed something, James.

    Napolitano said that the system worked after the incident.

    Is there anything remotely idiotic about that?

    I’m sorry to say but you appear to have bought into some spin about what she said, rather than consulting her words.

  5. Zuzu says:

    I agree with Amy and NFL. Please explain exactly what is idiotic about saying:

    Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork … again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.”

    Or are you merely repeating wingnut talking points now?

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    I hold no brief for Obama, but I suspect that if you plotted the number of weeks that the president wasn’t briefed on a threat, you would find any attack always had some sort of warning.

    Now the fact that a US embassy was warned that the specific person was a threat and Clinton’s state department didn’t revoke that specific persons visa is a much clearer example of a fumble.

    As far as the ‘system worked’, she said (among other times) that right after being called out on saying he was properly screened.

    At the very best you can say she (like much of the left) sees her role as closing the barn door afterword and not prevention forward. The system for closing the barn door afterword may have worked, but that is not good enough.

    But what can we do when unthinking right wing mouth pieces like Obama tell us that the system didn’t work.

  7. Pug says:

    … based on vague intelligence of an increased terrorism risk over the holidays is unreasonable.

    So who’s trying to be reasonable? This isn’t about reasonable. This is about throwing a hysterical hissy and hoping to get votes from quaking, cowering Americans.

    Meanwhile, I haven’t heard a single real American even mention this incident. The news and the blogs blather on endlessly about it and I haven’t seen anyone who seems to care that much.

  8. TMA says:

    Re: those who say Napolitano’s quote is being treated unfairly

    First (and, perhaps, less importantly), her original quote began by including the passengers and crew of the flight:

    One thing I’d like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred…

    lumping in the response of other passengers to the flames as part of “the system” is, in some sense, valid — but it feels strange for her dept. to take credit for it. And, of course, relying on the response of passengers would not have been as useful had the bomb worked.

    Second, and more importantly, if her response to the question “how did this guy come so close to blowing a plane out of the sky?” is to point out how well the system worked AFTER the attack — well, who is spinning whom? It doesn’t make me feel much safer when I fly to know that if someone detonates a bomb on my plane, the system will immediately spring into action issuing memos and changing procedures.

  9. Conor says:

    Remember that early on, Napolitano re-framed Muslim extremist threats as “man-caused disasters”.

    The only thing that kept NW Flight 253 from going down on Christmas day was failure of the attacker to correctly detonate the bomb.

    A serious person in charge of security would make the obvious observation that the security system failed.

    Obama tried to ignore it, and Napolitano tried to spin it as “the system worked”. And they both look like blithering idiots.

    If the bomb had detonated and 300 people died, would Napolitano have said “the system worked” because the other 128 flights in the air had been notified?

    By this standard, Napolitano would have said that “the system worked” for Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania on 9/11. The passengers responded, and the other flights were notified. No problem, right?

    Oh, and thankfully none of this is related to terrorism. Just an inconvenient case of “man-caused disaster”.

  10. joe says:

    To all those commenting in favor of Napolitano’s “once the incident occurred”… She did not say that originally. She said that the next day, ONLY AFTER getting heat from EVERYONE who understood her original “system worked” comment. The next day, she came up with the BS story that she was taken out of context, and that what she really meant was that the “system worked AFTER the incident occurred.” Well, let me ask you something – who gives a crap about that?!?!” “After the plane blew up with everyone on board, the system worked like a well-oiled machine.” Yippee! Go back and read the original interview. There is no doubt of what she said, and meant. Even the reporter doing the interview was taken aback, and had to ask a follow-up question, just to make sure that they had heard Napolitano correctly. And, everyone heard her correctly, that’s why the uproar. Not till she gets schooled in How-we’re-gonna-fix-this-mess, does she come out with her new answer. Reminds me of John Kerry dissing the troops, but not realizing he’s dissing the troops till someone has to tell him – “Yeh, you’re dissing the troops.” Then, we’re all told that it was a joke that we’re just too stupid to get. No Janet, no John, we heard you the first time – and we got it.

  11. mak says:

    It’s not that Obama is expected to STOP a terrorist attack based on a briefing; the point is that Obama is supposed to acknowledge that it IS a terrorist attack, which he did not do for three days and has yet to do it for the Ft. Hood shooter.

  12. guess'd says:

    Obama’s system worked AFTER the incident, as his administration has stated. Under Bush, the system worked BEFORE incidents occurred, creating a lengthy list of attacks we had stopped, and probably many more that we can’t make public because of what it might give away about our methods.

    What did Bush do differently? He aggressively took the battle to the terrs on their own territory, and he aggressively gathered information from captured terrorist combatants to allow him to do this.

    What is Obama doing? He is making the United States justice system deliver a recitation to captured terrorists assuring them of their right to remain silent.

    We will see more attacks here at home under this president.

  13. Mike G says:

    “I agree with Amy and NFL. Please explain exactly what is idiotic about saying: “Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork … again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.””

    Well, it’s idiotic because it’s sort of like saying, once Elin hit Tiger with a 9 iron, the marriage vows worked.

    We kinda don’t care that you got your bureaucratic s–t together so nicely, we’re kinda more interested in not getting blown up.

  14. Bill Dalasio says:

    NedFrigginLamont, Amy, & Zuzu,

    As has been pointed out here, the comments you’re quoting are from her statement on the Monday following her idiotic comments last Sunday. Maybe you were confused, maybe Ms. Napolitano chose terrible wording. But, nevertheless, Mr. Joyner is absolutely right to call her on her initial comments. Moreover, I think we need to consider the implications of her argument that the system worked after the attack. As Joe suggests, so what? Having solid response to a mass murder doesn’t exactly count as a rousing success in my book. If a teacher graded a paper as an A when the student misidentified Hitler as “President of Europe”, said that George Washington freed the slaves, and claimed that “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was from the Declaration of Independence, because his penmanship was just so gosh darned wonderful, you’d question the competence of the teacher. Napolitano deserves the same scrutiny.

  15. anjin-san says:

    We will see more attacks here at home under this president.

    So the right seems to hope…

  16. jms says:

    He should have done what Bush did — make a vague announcement and raise the “homeland security threat level” a notch. One of the lessons that the Bush administration learned is that AQ is not afraid of dying as a martyr, but they are afraid of being caught and losing out on their chance for paradise. I’ve read several times that the entire purpose of the security threat level is to make AQ nervous by making them unsure of whether or not we are onto them, and inducing them to postpone their terror attacks.

    If Obama had gone public, raised the security level, and ordered additional security measures, AQ may well have done what it has done so many times before — scrub the mission and reschedule it for months or years later. Bush left an imperfect but functional deterrence system in place and the Obama administration chose to deride and ignore it, leading to a near-tragedy.

    Here is what so deeply pisses me off about this administration. Bush made a lot of really difficult decisions where all of the options were bad. Sure, the “alert level” looks like a joke, but we never had a terrorist attack immediately following a public alert level escalation, so maybe it meant something. The Democrats are so eager to mock, deride and disassemble Bush’s national security apparatus that they never stop to consider that they will need to replace it with something better, and for the most part there is nothing better. When the Obama team dismantles the best of a list of bad options, it is left to pick and choose between the remaining bad options. Thus, instead of a terrorist sitting in Guantanamo spilling his guts about his contacts with AQ, he is sitting, lawyered up, in a Detroit jail with a smile on his face. Instead of taking a round of mockery for raising the terror alert level, we get an airline bomber.

    It all comes down to Obama’s ego. He simply believes that everyone in the Bush administration was ignorant and incompetent, and everything they did to prevent terrorist attacks is just trash to be thrown away and replace by — whatever — because anything must be better by definition. He is a fool and other people will die because of his ego.

  17. Harvard@Cal says:

    We will see more attacks here at home under this president.

    So the right seems to hope…

    No, so the right seems to understand. The collectivists are too busy trying to pin it on Bush, singing songs of praise to THE O (La la la la la I can’t hear you la la la) and generally trying to wish away reality (reality based? oh please) to understand jack.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Thus, instead of a terrorist sitting in Guantanamo spilling his guts about his contacts with AQ, he is sitting, lawyered up, in a Detroit jail with a smile on his face

    How much time did “shoe bomber” Richard Ried spend at Gitmo?

    Run along junior…

  19. anjin-san says:

    No, so the right seems to understand

    Well, I understand that there is zero outrage from the right when the GOP votes against funding for explosives detection systems and other aviation security measures. What’s your position on that Harvard?

    Clearly this is not about national security, and it is about damaging Obama by any means.

  20. Alec Rawls says:

    What is reasonable is that Obama be held accountable for CHANGES he made that allowed the underwear bomber to get on the plane:

    This [State Department] employee says that despite statements from the Obama Administration, such information [that Abdulmutallab was banned from Britain] was flagged and given higher priority during the Bush Administration, but that since the changeover “we are encouraged to not create the appearance that we are profiling or targeting Muslims. I think career employees were uncomfortable with the Bush procedures and policies and were relieved to not have to live under them any longer.”

    Blue haired Lutheran grannies get hauled aside for pat down searches while Muslims are singled out for NON-examination. (Strata connects more dots.) Obama is ANTI-profiling, which led to the murders of 2 army recruiters in Little Rock, the Fort Hood massacre, and the underwear bomber.

  21. anjin-san says:

    I do have to admit that the way Rush & Beck can get all these wingers to act like hysterical old ladies on cue is kind of impressive…

  22. NedFrigginLamont says:

    “the comments you’re quoting are from her statement on the Monday following her idiotic comments last Sunday”-Bill Dalasio

    Uhm, no, jackass. The quote I posted is verbatim, from Sunday. Please learn how to use the Google, thanks.

  23. jms says:

    > How much time did “shoe bomber” Richard Ried [sic] spend at Gitmo?

    Gitmo wasn’t even opened until 4 months after Reid‘s attack. He had already been charged and was awaiting trial, so pulling him out of the criminal justice system and treating him as a freshly captured enemy combatant wasn’t really an option.

  24. anjin-san says:

    so pulling him out of the criminal justice system and treating him as a freshly captured enemy combatant wasn’t really an option.

    Yet the republic has somehow endured…