President Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies suffered an unacceptable "systemic failure" in their handling of information from the father of a Nigerian man suspected of trying to blow up an airliner over Detroit.
Mr. Obama characterized the lapse as "totally unacceptable" in his second public comments on the attack, distancing himself further from Sunday's widely derided comments by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that "the system worked."
In another political fight over the attack aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the Senate's top Democrat reacted to reports that two security-related federal agencies have not had top leaders for nearly a year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed Tuesday to push through the nomination of Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration when the Senate returns in January, blaming a Republican hold in a fight over potential TSA unionization.
Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the father of bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, warned U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month about his son's increasingly radical Islamist views. The warnings neither resulted in the 23-year-old son's being put on the no-fly list, nor the revocation of his U.S. visa.
"It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community, but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect's name on a no-fly list," Mr. Obama said in an audio statement from his vacation spot in Hawaii. "Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together."
Mr. Obama alluded to criticisms, widely made by the Sept. 11 commission and others in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, that the myriad U.S. security, intelligence and counterintelligence agencies were unable to connect the dots and possibly prevent the attack.
"It's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have," the president said. "Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence ... triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."
He concluded that there was a systemic failure among U.S. government agencies.
"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been ... a systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," Mr. Obama said.
Meanwhile Tuesday, another political fight percolated in Washington over reports that the Obama administration took eight months to appoint leaders for TSA and the Customs and Border Protection agency, neither of whom have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The Senate has not set a hearing date for former U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin's nomination to lead CBP, but Mr. Reid said Tuesday that he will file for cloture on the Southers nomination and try to break a hold placed on the nomination by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican.
In a statement on his Senate Web site, reid.senate.gov, on Tuesday, Mr. Reid accused the Republicans of "playing politics with national security."
"I will file cloture on Mr. Southers' nomination when the Senate reconvenes in January to make sure that the President has another key member of his national security team in his place," Mr. Reid said.
But Mr. DeMint pointed to the initial months of delay as a sign of low priority for national security, saying in a Fox News interview Tuesday that Mr. Obama "has downplayed the threat of terrorism since he took office."
The South Carolina Republican also denied delaying confirmation, saying his hold only insists on an open debate and a recorded vote on the Southers nomination. He said Mr. Reid could have had a set of hearings and a possible confirmation at any time.
He also defended his hold as an attempt to prevent possible unionization of TSA. He said the nation's unions, which heavily backed the Obama campaign, will try to extract the move from the White House as political payback. Mr. DeMint did not explain why such White-House-supported payback would be affected by who heads the agency, and he did not respond to the Fox host's question of whether Mr. Southers, a former FBI special agent, is unqualified for the post.
"Airport security needs maximum flexibility. And it makes no sense to" require TSA to submit to "union interference," he said on Fox. "We don't need airport security to be under the same constraints as the automakers."
Denis McDonough, chief of staff of the White House National Security Council, downplayed the fight to reporters Monday in Hawaii, saying that although Mr. Obama "is eager to have his TSA head on the job," acting TSA chief Gale Rossides is "very able" and "we have a very able team of career professionals at TSA."