- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2010

President Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials had enough information to prevent the Christmas Day terrorism attempt but failed to connect the dots — a breakdown he said was “not acceptable” — and he vowed changes are coming.

Mr. Obama suspended transfers of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen amid revelations that the terrorist suspect trained there. The move was a reversal of administration statements this weekend.

The president, however, shot down speculation that the White House would back off plans to shutter the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“When a suspected terrorist is able to board a plane with explosives on Christmas Day, the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way. And it’s my responsibility to find out why and to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future,” Mr. Obama said after a two-hour meeting with security advisers.

The botched attack, in which a Nigerian man attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a Detroit-bound international flight, prompted the White House earlier this week to beef up aviation screening procedures. New policies include random pat-downs for all U.S. passengers and mandatory pat-downs and luggage searches for all passengers traveling from or through 14 countries with suspected terrorist ties.

Mr. Obama said counterterrorism officials have updated the no-fly list, which now will require embassies and consulates to provide visa information on suspected terrorists. U.S. officials failed to place the name of the suspect in the airline attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on the list despite warnings from his father to U.S. officials in Nigeria.

Mr. Obama said he plans to release a summary of security reviews on the no-fly list and airline screening procedures to the public in the coming days. He also ordered Cabinet officials to make “specific recommendations” to fix existing problems in the systems.

He said the U.S. would freeze transfers of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. Just two days earlier, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told Fox News Sunday that the administration would “absolutely” continue transferring detainees there on a case-by-case basis.

Republicans pounced on the president’s renewed pledge to close the military prison in Cuba, which houses about 198 terrorism suspects.

The Obama administration recently selected the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois to house some of the Guantanamo prisoners once they leave Cuba.

“Unless the administration abandons its ill-conceived and politically motivated plans to close [Guantanamo], most Americans won’t find much solace in transferring detainees that would have gone to Yemen and housing them on American soil,” said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, senior Republican on a House government oversight panel.

“Hopefully, recent events will have awakened the president to the reality that our national and homeland security must supersede the politics of the moment.”

But Mr. Obama said Guantanamo’s existence was one of the reasons al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claims it trained Mr. Abdulmutallab, gave for its formation.

“Make no mistake: We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda,” Mr. Obama said.

As for increasing air travel restrictions, Democrats and civil liberties groups suggested that Mr. Obama proceed cautiously.

“We all agree that changes need to be made, but we must be thoughtful and purposeful about it,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We should resist reflexive answers or political opportunism that would be a disservice to the traveling public and to America’s security. Imposing a one-size-fits-all security response is not necessarily the most effective way to protect Americans.”

Still, many lawmakers praised the decision to halt detainee transfers to Yemen.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised Mr. Obama’s decision but criticized the White House for taking 11 days to make it.

“Over the last year, Yemen has become much more of a front in the war on terrorism,” Mr. King said. “I would hope that the administration would use this as a reason not to close Guantanamo, to realize that all they are doing is pandering to world opinion and putting the security of the United States at risk.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, urged Mr. Obama late last month to stop the transfers.

“We must do everything in our power to ensure that these detainees do not pose a future threat to the United States. Until we are certain that released detainees will not return to the battlefield, all detainee transfers to Yemen should cease,” they wrote in a letter to the White House.

The State Department said the security situation in Yemen has been of great concern for some time, and the government there has taken steps “in the right direction” but they are not enough.

“We are making clear to the government of Yemen that there are things that they need to do,” spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “We need to see out of Yemen a much more consistent approach to dealing with extremism within their borders.”

The Yemeni Embassy in Washington did not respond to e-mail messages seeking comment.

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