By Sam Youngman - 01/06/10 01:21 AM EST
President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he demands perfection from the U.S. intelligence community, but stopped short of saying he will fire administration officials who could have done more to thwart an attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day.
Obama, having met with his national security team for about two hours, said that intelligence agencies had enough information to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane to Detroit, but they failed to act on it.
Obama ordered reviews into the “human and systemic failures” that allowed Abdulmutallab to board a plane to Detroit, on which he attempted to set off an explosive device.
These failures, Obama said, “almost cost nearly 300 lives.”
In the meeting, according to the White House, Obama said, “This was a screw up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet but just barely.”
White House officials would not say Tuesday whether the president would fire or ask for the resignation of any officials charged with collecting and sharing intelligence.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would wait until the reviews are finished before making any possible personnel decisions, but Gibbs said the president does still have complete confidence in Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Obama said he was grateful that the agency heads “took responsibility for the shortfalls within their own agencies.”
Gibbs was asked several times Tuesday if any heads would roll over the security failure, but he said Obama is “going to move beyond finger-pointing.”
“This is a far more serious game than trying to figure out which agency can blame which other agency,” Gibbs said. “That’s not the point. The point in this is to take every conceivable and knowable action to ensure that what we collect is processed — that as it’s gathered, it’s processed, and that it’s used to prevent something like this from happening.”
Gibbs did say, however, that “accountability is part of the ongoing review.”
“The president has a series of questions that he’s asked all of us to look into, and he’ll start going through those questions and looking for answers that are satisfactory to him and to the American people,” Gibbs said.
Obama said there were “red flags” about the suspected terrorist that should have alerted federal agencies, noting that it is his responsibility to keep Americans safe.
Presidents have long struggled with who should take the blame when federal responsibilities go awry.
Former President George W. Bush initially voiced confidence in then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown despite overwhelming and embarrassing mistakes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Already in the Obama administration, three high-profile officials have resigned or been removed from their posts because of mistakes or past personal statements.
Greg Craig recently left his position as White House general counsel, where he was in charge of closing the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Van Jones, until recently Obama’s green jobs czar, resigned after questions were raised about his involvement with a Sept. 11 conspiracy group. And Louis Caldera, the former director of the White House military office, left his post after one of the planes used for Air Force One buzzed New York City for a photo-op.
Obama stopped short of asking for the resignation of White House social secretary Desiree Rogers after she attracted criticism from lawmakers after uninvited guests were able to enter the White House and mingle with the president during Obama’s first state dinner.
Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said that a sacrificial lamb is not what the American people are looking for when it comes to national security.
“Firing people may be good for Beltway chatter, but it seldom fixes why agencies fail to work with one another,” said Kofinis, also a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. “At the end of the day, voters will care only if this problem doesn’t get fixed, not if someone gets fired or not.”