Press Background Briefing By Senior Administration Official
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
December 29, 2009
Press Background Briefing By Senior Administration Official
Moana Surfrider Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii
1:22 P.M. HAST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, hi, everybody. Thanks for getting together for a couple minutes here.
One thing that wasn't immediately apparent during the President's remarks today is shortly before his remarks he had a secure conference call with General Jones, with John Brennan, with Tom Donilon, wherein he got an update on the review. As he announced today he obviously formally signed the terms of reference for review, which has been undergoing here since Sunday and sent those out to the agencies as a formal matter.
But in the context of that discussion General Jones and John and Tom updated the President on some of the new developments in the review overnight. The President, in a spirit of candor and transparency, wanted to make sure that the American people were aware of what he learned in the context of this review, and that's why he wanted to go out today and did so in relatively short order.
The fact is that I think as the President made clear in his statement it is now clear to us that there are bits and pieces of information that were in the possession of the U.S. government in advance of the Christmas Day attack -- the attempted Christmas Day attack that had they been assessed and correlated could have led to a much broader picture and allowed us to disrupt the attack or certainly to know much more about the alleged attacker in such a way as to ensure that he was on, as the President suggested in his statement, a no-fly list.
I would just say the some of that information was incomplete or partial in nature. I think that it was in some instances about the individual in question and his plans, some of it was about al Qaeda and its plans, some of it was about potential attacks during the holiday period. It was not obvious or readily apparent that all of it spoke to this attack, but in fact we believe it did.
So with that as kind of an opening or an introduction here, let me open it up to your questions.
Q Did he learn something today that he didn't know yesterday? Couldn't he have drawn the same conclusion when he came out yesterday, or was there something new he heard today that made him solidify that conclusion?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, there was something new that he learned, several of us learned about it last night, late last night here. We worked on it overnight and in the morning. We thought it was important that the President be briefed on it by General Jones and by John and Tom, which he was. And then that's what led the President to go out today.
Q Can you give us any better sense of what that was?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I just gave you a sense of it, Peter. And I think the President gave some indication of it today, too. It had to do with information that was in possession of the government at the time that spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some plans of al Qaeda were, and the fact that if this all were correlated in a way that allowed us to get a bigger and brighter picture -- as, frankly, the intelligence community has done very, very effectively earlier this year; for example, on the case of Najibullah Zazi and in the case of David Coleman Headley -- I think if it were correlated in such a way as those were I think it would have been a different outcome.
Q He spoke of systemic and human failure. Could you be more specific about what the human failures were?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into any more specifics than the President did on the human failure. As it relates to systemic failure, I mean, the question really is as this information is available in analytical channels, how are we making sure that it's available in a different databases. And so those are exactly the kind of questions that the review is going to look at.
You know, we're dealing with a series of watch list policies and procedures, and, frankly, assumptions that have been with us now for a couple years. As I think we've indicated to each of you in individual conversations and as I indicated to you last night, the President is constantly demanding that we challenge those assumptions and that we take a hard look at whether the systems in place are sufficient to the task at hand. And so that's exactly what the review will do.
Q He says people need to be held accountable. What is talking about in terms of accountability? Is he talking people get fired for when this type of thing happens? People get reassigned? What kind of accountability is he talking about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President was very clear. I think the words he uses, that he intends to demand accountability at the highest levels. It remains to be seen what that means exactly; I'm not going to prejudge the review. But I think the President is making very clear that he holds us to a very high standard, he holds himself to a very high standard and that's what he intends to do.
Q Where was DNI in all of this? I mean, the whole point of DNI and the creation of it was centralized intelligence and taking this and having everything coming in, in one place, and having sort of, you know, overseeing it. Yet I've not heard the words "Dennis Blair" come out of your mouth at all in these last three days. So is he just -- is this part of the review, like, what role are they playing? Are they going to be part of this review?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Frankly, as I indicated to you all last night that the interagency has been up and been working. The DNI is a key part of the interagency process on that. The NCTC is housed in the DNI and that's a key piece of this puzzle. And frankly, I think as you've seen, as I just suggested, over the course of this year there has been tremendous advances as a result of the intelligence community, as a result of the DNI. And as NCTC, I gave you just two examples; there's countless others that I'm not going to talk to you about, but about which I think the President is very proud of the intelligence community.
Q I mean, this is the clog, whatever you want to call it, where things got clogged up, didn't get correlated is here. Is that correct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to prejudge exactly where it is. I think there's, as the President suggested in his remarks today, that there are a series of shortcomings. Not only was it that this information was available to a component of the intelligence community, but also that there's other issues that we want to resolve within the intelligence community within the broader interagency as a whole.
So I don't want to leave the impression that there's one challenge here. I think that what we want to make sure is that given the multitude of information that we're able to get our hands on now, that we're correlating it in the best possible way. And the DNI plays a fundamental role. The fact is, you know, I've spent some time on that legislation. That was a key reform out of the 9/11 Commission. As you know it's been a long time -- had been a longtime issue that Lee Hamilton, who is a student of the intelligence community, a very ardent student of it, had encouraged that there be an overarching mechanism that demanded the sharing of information. And that's happening. And the question is whether the policies and procedures that we've had in place are sufficient or whether they need to be updated, and that's what the review is going to find out.
Q What more can he expect to get in this preliminary look that he wants by Thursday that he doesn't have now? What are the other things that are out there that could possibly be resolved in the next day or so?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think we're pulsing it for all the information and intelligence that's out there about -- that could have been available at the time. Obviously it's a great opportunity to learn more about where we can get information that could be correlated and pushed more effectively into any particular review.
But, you know, Peter, it's difficult to know exactly what's out there. If we did we wouldn't have to do the review.
Q Why did he set Thursday as the first deadline?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: For two reasons. One, because he wants to act with urgency, and he indicated that in the statement today. Two, because, frankly, under General Jones and John Brennan we've been pulsing this system very aggressively since Friday. And so a lot of this information is being correlated, being pulled together, being looked at now. And the President wants to make sure that we have a short fuse in terms of looking at it.
Q Just at the moment, though, when the email crossed on my BlackBerry that he was going to give a statement I was on the phone with NCTC and they were still arguing that Abdul Muttalib was properly categorized? Was he? And if not, is there a major conflict here? I mean, are they that far behind where all you guys were in your meeting earlier today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think that's part of the issue that we want to resolve here. And, frankly, a lot of the intelligence that we're drawing on now is intelligence that NCTC brought together. So I don't think it's indicative of a conflict or a misunderstanding. I think it's just indicative of the fact that everybody is looking very hard at this, as I think NCTC told you, we're talking about gigantic databases with a huge number of people and information in it. And what we want to make sure that we're doing is that we're targeting that information and our resources on that information that's most useful.
Q Is it still your position that he should have been in the broadest category and not on any of the watch lists, narrower watch lists?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll just associate myself with what the President had to say about what he learned overnight and then what he told the American people today.
Q Why didn't Secretary Napolitano acknowledge any systemic failures on Sunday? She didn't acknowledge any problems.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think what you heard the President talk to today -- I think on your station on Monday morning she did indicate that it was her assessment that it was a failure. I think what the President said today was that as Secretary Napolitano had said, that after the point that it became clear that this fellow intended to do harm to us that everything worked the way it should. And the President enumerated that I think pretty clearly.
The question is what happened before then. And the President and Secretary Napolitano have made clear that there is systemic failure.
Q But she didn't make that clear on Sunday and she also didn't ask for any accountability. I mean, why did it take until Tuesday after the incident for anyone to talk about accountability?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think I'd have to take a harder look at what she said specifically in the six interviews she gave on Monday morning, when she made it very clear that there was a failure in this instance. And as it relates to accountability, I think the President was quite clear on that and frankly he's been quite clear on that throughout his administration -- as he has been on transparency, and that's really the principle that governed getting out there today.
Q Can you talk about the failures -- when you talk about the human failure, is he saying that the system itself failed, or that proper procedures weren't followed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He's saying that it looks like there was both human and systemic failure and that we are going to conduct this review to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
Q So the system may need to actually be changed? It's not that the proper procedures weren't followed and had they been this wouldn't have happened, it's that the system itself is going to need to change?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's the whole point of the review.
Q Yesterday you said you couldn't verify al Qaeda's claim, taking responsibility for this. But with the new information overnight it sounds like you maybe have verified their claim?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not -- I'm never going to verify anything al Qaeda says and I'm not in a position to suggest that we know conclusively that they were for it, that they planned it.
I do think, as the President indicated yesterday, we're not going to rest until we find those who aided this. And I think as I just suggested to you today, that some of the new information that we've developed overnight does suggest that there was some linkage there.
Q Do you have any assurance that this kind of thing won't arise again before this review is complete?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: By "this kind of thing," what is that --
Q That systemic failure would lead to another plot being foiled or is there someone else in the system that you're identifying or that the agencies are looking at?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Frankly, I think the thousands of dedicated professionals in the intelligence and law enforcement communities are looking at a variety of threats every day. And it's to their great credit that the overwhelming number of those, vast majority of those are stopped. And I just gave you two examples of instances that we have discussed publicly. But there are dozens and dozens that we will not discuss publicly. And it's to their great credit that it's happened that way.
As it relates to whether I can give you any assurance, I think the bottom line is we are pressing this issue very, very aggressively to ensure that it doesn't happen again. As the President indicated in his remarks today there is no -- even when all of our best intelligence and policies and procedures work effectively there's no guarantee that we'll be successful. But that simple fact should serve as a motivating factor for all of us, to ensure that we're being that much more aggressive and that much more intent on stopping these guys who have demonstrated time and again that they have an intent to undertake this kind of stuff.
Q On Napolitano, is the President unhappy with her comment the other day, or is he attempting to help her today in going out there and sort of reframing and making sure people have a sense that he thinks things failed as well?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's difficult for me to characterize the President's thinking. I think he's very -- as he indicated today, I think that he's very appreciative of the multitude of people who are working in this area of intelligence, homeland security, law enforcement. And so I think, frankly, that he appreciates all the work that she is doing and has been doing, as he appreciates all the work that everybody in her agency is doing and all the intel folks are doing.
But that doesn't mean that we don't owe it to them and to the American people to take a hard look at it when the policies and procedures that are in place fail to result in the outcome that we all expect.
Q Does the President have confidence in her?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely.
Q The new information you've developed -- is it just to the Christmas Day attack, or is there some reason to believe from this that this is a wider threat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No reason to believe that.
Q Is there any indication that he's connected at all to militants under -- any other militants under U.S. scrutiny?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q You said you thought if the information was put together that you would have a different outcome. Can you say -- are you saying definitively that if that information was correlated he would have put on a no-fly list?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I'd just associate myself with what the President said about this today, that had it been more effectively shared that it's conceivable that there would have been a different outcome.
Q He didn't say "conceivable," he went way beyond saying it's "conceivable." Didn't he say --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Then allow me to continue to associate myself with his remarks. (Laughter.)
Q In terms of the watch list review, has there been a person selected to oversee the -- yesterday you said that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, that will be overseen by Brennan.
Q Can we switch to Major Hasan here a minute? In the same way that you have talked about the importance the President wants with transparency regarding new bits of information -- which appear to be about Yemen, with our terror suspect, is -- at some point is it going to be important for the government to be transparent about Major Hasan's connections possibly to the same groups of people? I mean, it seems like you continue to put Major Hasan in this other category. And as we're learning more and more does it seem to be that we should be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't, but you do. The fact is that the President has been very transparent about this and continues to look at this. We've just worked through the review on Fort Hood and what we knew, what developed on the systems that should have been -- that are in place there. And that review --
Q Do you worry that there were some similar intelligence failures regarding Major Hasan's contacts?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the challenge for us in this system where we're getting a multitude of intelligence as a result of the excellent work of our intelligence analysts in the field, as a result of excellent analysis from all sorts of other agencies -- from the military, from our State Department diplomats and others. Our challenge is to make sure that it's correlated and shared across agencies in a way that people can draw on that to draw the appropriate conclusions. That's as true on Zazi and Headley as it is on anything else, including Hasan.
So bottom line is we are working aggressively to ensure that all this information that we're dragging in through a variety of channels is used most effectively. And that continues to be true on all these cases.
Q This watch list system was devised under the Bush administration, as you point out. Was there anything actively done during the past year to review that watch list system to see if it's -- what might have needed to be done to it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have not done any review of the existing watch list system. I don't know that others have, but I'm certainly happy to ask around on that. The point -- I don't remember suggesting -- as you suggested I suggested --that this was devised under the Bush administration. I said it's been devised over the course of many years. The fact is that we are up against a threat that has metastasized in many ways and we want to make sure that the assumptions that govern the decisions about it do keep up with that threat.
So the fact is that as we've taken on these challenges there's no question we see them differently today than maybe some others saw them a year ago. But the fact is that the challenge for us isn't one focused on Washington, but rather one focused on the dynamic threat that we face and making sure that the institutions we have in place are ready for that threat.
Q Bill, this is kind of for you logistically when this new deadline comes on Thursday, can we expect to see the President come out again publicly and talk about this on Thursday itself? What do you think?
MR. BURTON: As I've said previously, we reserve the right to screw up your day at a moment's notice, so I'd just stay tuned. We'll let you know.
Q CNN is reporting that the suspect's father met in Abuja with the CIA station chief there. Can you confirm that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can't.
Q -- these days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President is -- we just spent a little bit of time with him, as we have been doing on a regular basis throughout this trip. I think the President is, as I think many of us are, grateful for the opportunity to be with his wife and his kids. I think that he's also very mindful of the fact that we continue to be under threat by al Qaeda and its affiliates and I think he's very mindful of the fact that there's thousands of Americans traveling who are going through additional hassles in their travel as a result. So I think he's -- just to sum up, I think he's grateful for the opportunity to be with his wife and kids, his two daughters, and I think he's grateful to be with friends, but I think he's also very mindful of the fact that there is a series of challenges that are as -- that are as present and upfront for him here as they are back in Washington.
Q Was consideration ever given to breaking away, to leaving here to go back to D.C. to deal with this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Still no. My answer yesterday was no; the answer today is no.
Q Can you say something about Yemen, thinking about what happens next in Yemen? Is there something we should be watching for in terms more kinetic activity, more overt activity?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, one of the things that as an administration we've done over the course of the last six or seven months is dramatically increase the attention on Yemen. As a result of increased pressure on al Qaeda in South Asia, we're mindful of the fact that al Qaeda will want to develop additional operations and locations and Yemen has been one of those. You've heard us say before -- you've heard Robert say and you've heard the President say, including up at West Point, that we are going to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and its affiliates -- be that in East Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, Southeast Asia, or as I indicated earlier, right here at home in terms of the Zazi and Hedley business --
Q -- wasn't that a criticism of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I was saying -- so we've increased our -- dramatically increased our attention to it. The President has talked about it quite a bit, and I think it's fair to say -- with trips there of important administration officials -- we've underscored to the Yemeni government that we're strongly supportive of their efforts against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and others that wish not only them harm, but wish us harm.
Exactly what form that increased support will take is -- obviously includes things like training and increased military and economic assistance. And that continues to be a priority for us.
Q -- story that six Yemenis were returned just last week from Guantanamo Bay to Yemen. Is there enough faith in the Yemeni government to not -- those guys won't join back with al Qaeda?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, we've been obviously working this through very aggressively. We're making decisions based on a range of intelligence that we have and we're obviously dealing with a situation that we've inherited as it relates to our ability to hold certain individuals. But we're confident that any transfers that we're making are being made not only consistent with our national security interests but also consistent with what we consider to be a fundamental national security interest in closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
I think that some of us were struck by the fact when al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula itself was formed it was the conglomeration of two separate al Qaeda affiliates -- when it was formed, one of the recruiting and motivational tools that it used in its initial announcement to generate sympathy for its cause as well as recruits was the facility at Guantanamo Bay.
So we continue to feel that this is in our national security interest to close. We feel that the way we're closing it is advancing our national security interest goals, and that will continue to be the case.
Q Just to follow on that, you make this -- everybody is going to get reviewed and Yemen's ability to handle the transfer of a Gitmo -- of a Yemeni Gitmo detainee will be taken into account before --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's exactly what the law says at the moment; that's exactly what the President made clear in the announcement of the review of each case last January; and that's what, frankly, we've done with experienced intelligence and prosecutorial professionals over the course of this year --going through each of these cases with a fine-tooth comb.
Q There have been calls for -- McCain, Lieberman and Graham issued a joint statement, wrote a letter to the President saying -- called on any Yemeni nationals, transfers from Gitmo -- that's sort of a moot point because you wouldn't be releasing them if you thought they were going to become terrorists. Is that -- is that the way you responded, is that fair --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll just say what our policy is. I haven't had the opportunity to catch up with that letter, but our policy is, as consistent with the law, that we'll make transfers; we'll notify Congress of the transfers; that we'll make transfers consistent with our national security interests. And we believe that each of those that we have done so far enhances our national security.
I am aware of a lot of people pointing back at the way the transfers were handled under the Bush administration, that apparently they have some concerns about that. I didn't hear many of those concerns at the time, but there were obviously hundreds and hundreds of detainees that were transferred under the old regime.
We are, as I suggested, going through this with a fine-tooth comb. But I also just hasten to add the bigger picture here which is that we believe closing Gitmo is in the national security interest of the country for the reasons I've just outlined.
Q Is today the first time that the President spoke to General Jones since coming here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he speaks on a fairly regular basis with General Jones.
Q About how many hours a day is he devoting to work while he's out here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Boy, I don't have a full -- I don't have full visibility. I know that he's certainly dedicating a couple hours a day to our stuff, but he's also obviously in continual consultation with and contact with the economic and domestic policy teams. But from his daily intelligence brief, the regular NCTC updates, the regular Sit Room intel updates that I outlined to you guys yesterday, and our regular conversations with him, it's certainly several hours a day with us.
Q Wouldn't he be spending more time if he were back in Washington on this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Spending more time?
Q On this issue, if he were back in Washington?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you know, he's dedicating a lot of time to it now, Chip, so it's difficult for me to kind of judge, to be honest with you. We're in constant contact with him now not only in the very formal channels that we indicated yesterday, but also in other ways while we're here. So I've no reason -- I've no way to judge that, but by the same token I also have every confidence that he is right in the middle of this effort right now. He's leading the response. And I think the speed with which we responded to the developments in the update call today demonstrates exactly that.
Q If I could make sure I understood a word you used -- you said a couple times, you said "pulsing" the system -- is that what you said, "pulsing"?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pulsing, yes. That's the way we say it in Minnesota. (Laughter.)
2:23 P.M. HAST
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