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Obama Speaks On Counter-Terrorism Efforts

President Obama left a meeting with his entire national security team and delivered a short speech about the failed Christmas Day bombing, and the way forward on homeland security in the wake of what he called failures to connect the dots and prohibit Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane.

The key bit of news, which was previewed by Robert Gibbs earlier today, was that the President announced he has told the Attorney General to stop the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees to Yemen “at this time.” It was unclear when those transfers would begin again, but this basically ends any hope for Guantanamo to be closed in a reasonable amount of time. Almost half of the remaining prisoners at Gitmo are Yemeni nationals. Obama vowed to eventually close Guantanamo, and said that he would never release detainees in a way making people less secure. In fact, he said that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group in Yemen from which Abdulmutallab came, used Guantanamo as the explicit rationale for their formation. How exactly the continued indefinite detention of Yemeni citizens cleared for release would in any way help that process is unclear.

Obama’s main message was that, while he has a robust plan on national security and is working diligently to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” terrorist networks, with what he called considerable success, he said that the failed Christmas bombing is proof that “the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way. And it’s my job to find out why.”

Obama mentioned two reviews, one led by Janet Napolitano on screening procedures, and one led by John Brennan on the intelligence community and the terrorist watch list system. The second review was where Obama really zeroed in today. He said that intelligence information was available and sufficient to keep Abdulmutallab off the plane. and yet the US government “failed to connect the dots which would have put him on the no-fly list.” He called it a failure to integrate and understand intelligence, not to collect it, citing several pieces of information and “red flags” that could have stopped this plot. While he acknowledged that intelligence is by its nature imperfect, this intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged, something he characterized as intolerable.

Obama announced that the initial reviews would be completed this week, with recommendations arising from those reviews scheduled to be implemented immediately. He cited new steps in increased screening through state sponsors of terrorism, explosive detection teams, and more federal air marshals on airplanes. He updated the terrorist watch list system and added thousands of people to the no-fly list. He announced that current visa information would be added to the watch list, which perhaps would have stopped Abdulmutallab from having his visa continue.

Not a whole lot new here, but in general it was a speech where the President took responsibility for failures in the system and vowed to fix them. Those fixes could lead to a more constrictive freedom of movement for foreign nationals and a potential headache for anyone coming into this country. But that’s the decision that Americans have apparently made, giving up some of that liberty for an illusion of security.

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David Dayen

David Dayen