Update at bottom: 'I told the president today, I let him down,' counter-terrorism chief John Brennan says; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano vague on how many full-body scanners will be deployed
In a wide-ranging and detailed speech, President Barack Obama on Thursday took responsibility for the intelligence failures that led to the bungled Christmas Day bombing attempt, laid out the steps he plans to take to improve air security, and sent out a thinly-veiled retort to critics who have accused him of ignoring the problem of terrorism.
"Ultimately, the buck stops with me," Obama said in a televised speech from the White House. "As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility."
As expected, the president didn't announce any dismissals or resignations over the December 25 incident aboard Northwest flight 253. "It appears that this incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies," Obama said.
The president's speech also addressed, indirectly, criticism from Republicans that the president is "pretending" that the US is at war, or refusing to admit that terrorism is a security problem for the United States.
"We are at war," Obama said. "We are at war against al-Qaeda."
But the president made it clear he would not allow an atmosphere of fear and hysteria to infiltrate his administration.
"We will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the values that have made us great," he said. "That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory."
The president laid out in detail what he described as a systemic "failure to connect" the data that US intelligence had on the threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its alleged plans to attack the United States. He also said the intel community failed to follow up on the information it received, which in turn led to the bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, not being placed on the no-fly list.
Obama laid out a series of steps he plans to take to strengthen air travel security, including "assigning clear lines of responsibility" for following up on reports of threats; ordering that intel reports be distributed faster and more widely; strengthening the analysis process; and improving the methods by which people are added to the no-fly list.
"All of these agencies and their leaders are responsible for implementing these reforms, and all will be held accountable if they don't," the president warned.
But the president said that "there is no silver bullet" to fixing shortcoming in air security, adding that "there is no foolproof solution" to the threat of airliner terrorism, and asserting the US must "stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary."
And the president made an appeal to the country's talking heads to set aside the political opportunism that has marked the debate about the Christmas Day attempted attack.
"Now is not a time for partisanship, it's a time for citizenship," Obama said. "That's what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism."
This video is from MSNBC's News Live, broadcast Jan. 7, 2010.
BRENNAN: I LET OBAMA DOWN
"I told the president today, I let him down," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told reporters Thursday.
"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," Brennan said at a briefing shortly after the president's speech.
"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."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who also briefed reporters after the presdient's speech, was vague in describing details on how many full-body scanners would be installed in US airports, and when.
Asked by a report if the president plans to deploy the body screening technologies, Napolitano answered: "I think we look at security as a system of layers. It is advanced screening technology. It is the magnetometers [with] which people are so familiar. It is canines. It is behavior detection officers. ... And it is that series of layers that we will be adding to the security we already have in our domestic airports."
Asked if she would add to the 300 body scanners she plans to install in airports this year, Napolitano said that "we will be working on that as part of our ongoing review as to how many are needed."
This video is from CNN's The Situation Room, broadcast Jan. 7, 2010.