John Brennan

Opening Statement at the Security Review Briefing re the Attempted Christmas Day Terrorist Attack

delivered 7 January 2010

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[as prepared]

Thank you, Robert.  Good evening, everyone.  As the President said today, following the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, he directed me to conduct an immediate review of the watchlisting system that our nation uses to prevent known or suspected terrorists from entering our country.  He also directed key departments and agencies to provide their input to this review, and I want to commend Secretary Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Blair, and other leaders of the intelligence community for their cooperation, candor, and support.

Now, let me say that every department and organization provided the information that was needed.  That speaks to the seriousness with which this administration takes what happened on Christmas.  It also speaks to our urgency and determination to make sure that this does not happen again.

The review had three primary goals:  to get the facts to find out what happened, to identify the failures and shortcomings of what went wrong, and to make recommendations on corrective action so we can fix the problems.  And I want to address each of these areas.

First, the facts.  As the President has described in his public remarks, in the weeks and months leading up to the Christmas attack, various components of our intelligence community had fragments of information about the strategic threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and the specific plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.  It was known that AQAP not only sought to strike U.S. targets in Yemen, as they had when they attacked our embassy in San'a in 2008, but that it also sought to strike the U.S. homeland.  Indeed, there was a threat stream of intelligence on this threat.

It was known, thanks to the warnings of his father in November, that Abdulmutallab had developed extremist views, and his father feared he had joined unidentified extremists.  And, as the summary points out, there was information about an individual now believed to be Mr. Abdulmutallab and his association with al Qaeda.  These are among the fragments of intelligence that were available in the intelligence community on Christmas Eve, before Abdulmutallab ever boarded the aircraft in Amsterdam.  Of course, the central question is, given the fragments of intelligence we did know, why weren't they integrated and pieced together in a way that would have uncovered and disrupted the plot?

That leads to the second line of inquiry:  What went wrong?

As the President described, this was not the failure of a single individual or a single organization.  Yes, there were some human errors, but those errors were not the primary or fundamental cause of what happened on December 25th.  Rather, this was a systemic failure across agencies and across organizations. 

I want to be very clear about this, because there's been some confusion out there.  In recent days, it's been widely reported that we saw the same failures before 9/11 or the same failure to share information, and after eight years, why hasn't this been fixed.  Before 9/11, there was often reluctance or refusal to share information between departments and agencies.  As a result, different agencies and analysts across agencies were at times denied access to the critical information that could have stopped the tragic 9/11 attacks.  And over the past eight years, those issues have largely been resolved.

That is not what happened here.  This was not a failure to share information.  In fact, our review found the intelligence agencies and analysts had the information they needed.  No agency or individual was denied access to that information. 

So as the President has said, this was not a failure to collect or share intelligence.  It was a failure to connect and integrate and understand the intelligence we had.  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.

This contributed to the larger failure to connect the fragments of intelligence that could have revealed the plot, Abdulmutallab's extremist views, AQAP's involvement with a Nigerian, its desire to strike the U.S. homeland.  This in turn fed into shortcomings in the watchlisting system, both human and technological, which resulted in Abdulmutallab not being placed on the watchlist, thereby allowing him to board a plane in Amsterdam for Detroit.  And while the watchlisting system is not broken, how the intelligence community feeds information into that system clearly needs to be strengthened.

Which brings us to the recommendations:  How do we fix the problem?  Today the President is issuing a directive to all the relevant agencies on the corrective actions he has decided on.  There are more than a dozen corrective steps altogether, and each is assigned to an agency that is now responsible for their implementation.

As the President said, they fall into four broad areas.  First, he is directing that our intelligence community immediately begin assigning responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively so that plots are destructed.

Second, he's directing that intelligence reports, especially those involving potential threats to the United States, be distributed more rapidly and more widely. 

Third, he's directing that we strengthen the analytic process.  Director of National Intelligence Blair will take the lead in improving day-to-day efforts.  The President's Intelligence Advisory Board will examine the longer-term challenge of identifying and analyzing intelligence among the increasingly vast universe of intelligence that we collect.  That challenge dealing with the volumes of information is growing every day.

Finally, the President is ordering an immediate effort to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to our terrorist watchlists, especially the "no fly" list, so that we do a better job keeping dangerous people off airplanes.

The President said he is going to hold all of us -- his staff, his national security team, their agencies -- accountable for implementing these reforms.  The national security staff is going to monitor their progress.  The President has directed me to report back on the progress within 30 days and on a regular basis after that, and I will do so.  Taken together, these reforms are going to improve the intelligence community's ability to do its job even better -- to collect, share, integrate, analyze, and act on intelligence swiftly and effectively to protect our country.

And finally, I want to say that in every instance over the past year the intelligence community, the homeland security community, the law enforcement community has done an absolutely outstanding and stellar job in protecting this homeland and disrupting plots that have been directed against us.  It was in this one instance that we did not rise to that same level of competence and success.  And therefore, the President has told us that we must do better.

I told the President today I let him down.  I am the President's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism. And I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team.

Thank you.

Research Note: See Summary of White House Review of the December 25, 2009 Attempted Terrorist Attack

See Also: Presidential Memorandum Regarding 12-25-09 Attempted Terrorist Attack

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