Obama adviser: 'No smoking gun' to have thwarted terror plot

President Barack Obama's lead counterterrorism adviser said Sunday that the "clearly the system didn't work" to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane, but contended that there was "no smoking gun piece of intelligence out there that said this guy was a terrorist" even though the suspect's father told American authorities of his son's radicalization.

"That was certainly an alert that came to our attention," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said on CNN's "State of the Union," stressing that there were bits and pieces of intelligence that weren't pulled together to create a comprehensive picture of the Nigerian man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.

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Brennan said that the fact that the United Kingdom denied a student visa to Abdulmutallab in May was purely an immigration issue, even though the 23-year-old tried to enter the country on the pretext of attending a school that didn't exist.

"That was not related to terrorism at all," Brennan said.

Brennan, in a Sunday morning blitz of the news shows, also on CNN answered media reports that he had known of the underwear bombing technique in August, when an al-Qaeda operative tried to assassinate Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef using the technique.

"Within a week of that attack I was out in Saudi Arabia," Brennan said. "...There was no indication at the time that there was going to be an attempt against an aircraft."

The bomber in Saudi Arabia, who blew himself up when he tripped before getting to the Saudi counterterrorism chief, used PETN, the plastic explosive that shoe bomber Richard Reid had in his soles in 2001 and that Abdulmutallab had in his underwear.

Brennan contended that "from the very first day of this administration we focused on Yemen." He declined to say that the bungled airline bombing would deter the administration from sending dozens of Guantanamo detainees back to Yemen.

"The attempted attack by Mr. Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day was a unique incident" that "doesn't change the situation on the ground in Yemen one bit," Brennan said, adding that when inmates are sent back "we will do it the right way at the right time."

Yemen, however, is not a "second front" in the war on terrorism, Brennan said on "Fox News Sunday."

“I wouldn’t say we’re opening up a second front,” he said. “This is the continuation of an effort that we’ve had under way since, as I’ve said, the beginning of this administration.”

Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, has made several recent trips to Yemen, Brennan said, noting “the cooperation is on the security, intelligence and military fronts.” Asked if American troops could be sent to the country, Brennan was firm. “We’re not talking about that at this point at all,” he said. “The Yemeni government has demonstrated their willingness to take the fight to al-Qaeda.”
 
He said the Yemenis have had success in their fight against the terrorist group. “A number of al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen are no longer with us because of this determined and aggressive action.”

But on CNN, the former head of the 9/11 Commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, called Brennan's remarks "a bit defensive, and that's probably understandable given the circumstances."

Kean said Abdulmutallab "did us a favor" by bringing terrorism back to the forefront.

"We had an administration that's not focused as it should be on terrorism," Kean said, noting the time paid in the past year to initiatives such as healthcare reform and climate change that "distracted" the White House. "They weren't giving this enough attention. It's understandable but unacceptable."


Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), ranking member on the Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee, said he was more concerned after hearing Brennan and agreed with Kean's assessment that the administration had been distracted by its 2009 agenda.

"There's no question that the president has downplayed the risk of terror since taking office," DeMint said, adding that "we need to get the politics out" of fighting terrorism.

Yet subcommittee member Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who agreed that politics needed to be left out of the debate, said the Obama administration has said "there is a war against terror and violence" from Day One, "and we have been taking it to that network."

"This president is focused like a laser on how to keep this country safe," McCaskill said.

On CNN, Brennan defended the administration's commitment to fighting al-Qaeda while admitting that the dots weren't connected in the case of Abdulmutallab.

"We stop a lot of thse attacks and plans before they get to the execution phase," he said.

Kean said it was the failure to put the pieces together that made the Christmas bombing attempt similar to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Brennan also defended the decision to close the American embassy in Yemen during his Fox appearance.

“There are indications that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is targeting our embassy and targeting our personnel,” Brennan said. “We’re not going to take any chances with the lives of our diplomats and others who are at the embassy.”
 

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He said al-Qaeda, which has several hundred members in the country, had been plotting for “many months” to attack the embassy. “If we have to close the embassy to ensure that we have the optimal security we will do that,” he added.

Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said on Fox that it would be difficult to foster American cooperation with Yemeni authorities while the embassy is closed. "It concerns me," he said. "We didn't close the embassy in Kabul or the embassy in Baghdad." But he said he hadn’t seen the classified information that prompted the closing.

Brennan also expressed support for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has come under fire for her remarks in the aftermath of the Christmas Day incident. "She's an exceptionally dedicated individual," he said.

Bond said Napolitano’s remarks in the wake of the failed attack “raised eyebrows” but don’t warrant her resignation. “Those misstatements are certainly not grounds to relieve her,” he said.

Brennan defended the administration’s decision to charge Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant and not treat him as an enemy combatant. “Just because somebody is going to be put into the criminal legal process does not mean that we don’t have other opportunities to get information from them,” he said.

Asked if the Nigerian's request for a lawyer will prevent his cooperation with authorities, Brennan said officials will be able to "work the system."

"[Abdulmutallab] knows that there are certain things that are on the table," he said. "If he wants to, in fact, engage with us in a productive manner, there are ways that he can do that."

But on CNN, DeMint charged that the decision to put Abdulmutallab in the criminal justice system had already been damaging.

"If we had treated this Christmas Day bomber as a terrorist, he would have immediately been interrogated military-style rather than given the rights of an American and lawyers," DeMint said. "We probably lost valuable information.

"It does come down to a decision of whether or not this is an act of war, an agent of terror, or just a criminal act," he said.

Bond also suggested that Abdulmutallab could have valuable intelligence about other potential suicide bombers. “We need to know from him who they are,” he said. “We should have held him as an enemy combatant [and] tried him under the military commissions.”

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.