Friday, January 8, 2010




In my earlier writings on the attempt by a Nigerian student trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen to blow up a North-West Airlines aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25,2009, as it was coming in to land at Detroit, I had posed the question as to why Al Qaeda targeted this particular flight to Detroit? Did Detroit have any special significance for Al Qaeda? I had said that I was not in a position to answer this question.

2, Now, I think I can tentatively , after reading President Barack Obama's address to his people ( Annexure I) on the results of the in-house review (Annexure II ) of why the US counter-terrorism community reorganised in 2004 failed to prevent this attack. My answer is: While the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam had at some gates the required equipment with technology capable of detecting explosives concealed inside an underwear, the gate from which the North-West Airlines flight to Detroit took off did not have this equipment and technology.

3. This admission has not been made by Obama in such categorical terms as I have used, but it is obvious between the lines in the following sentence in his address to his people: "But a metal detector can't detect the kind of explosives that were sewn into his clothes. As Secretary Napolitano will explain, the screening technologies that might have detected these explosives are in use at the Amsterdam airport but not at the specific checkpoints that he passed through."

4.Were the North-West Airlines flights to Detroit taking off from the same gate every day which does not have the equipment with the technology to detect explosives concealed inside one's underwear? Or did only the flight on December 25 take off from that gate? If they were taking off from that gate every day, there is a strong likelihood that Al Qaeda knew about it in advance either through the observation of its sources transiting Schiphol or through moles and that was why it directed him to take this particular flight.

5. Al Qaeda chose the Nigerian for the attempted attack because it knew he had a valid US visa. The US Government failed to thwart the attempt because it did not know that the Nigerian student about whom his own father had cautioned the US Embassy in Nigeria held a valid visa for travel to the US. This was because the US Embassy in Nigeria in its report to the State Department on the father's warning had spelt the student's name differently from the spelling in his passport on which the visa was issued by the US Embassy in London in June,2008.Neither the human analysts in the US counter-terrorism agencies in Washington DC nor their computers connected the name as it had figured in the report of the US Ambassador in Nigeria and as it had figured in the list of persons for whom a visa was issued by the US Embassy in London.

6.An important lesson coming out of the enquiry: Data bases are important in counter-terrorism. Easy access to the databases to those dealing with counter-terrorism is equally important. Both these requirements were met in the case of the Nigerian student, but no action was taken to thwart the attempt because those having access to the databases did not make proper use of them. The information about the student conveyed by the Ambassador in Nigeria was not sufficient to warrant his black-listing and being included in the no-fly list, but there was other adverse information about him available in other databases. The bits and pieces of adverse information about him available in different databases were not brought together in an integrated manner on a single piece of paper. Had this been done, immediate action might have been taken to cancel his visa and prevent him from boarding the plane.

7. Obama's address and the in-house review do not call for any change in the counter-terrorism structure as it was set up in 2004. They have called for modifications and improvements in the way the human and technical elements in this structure operate.

8. The BBC's correspondent in North America has come out with an interesting comment on the brave attempt made by Obama to prevent any serious damage to his administration and to his own reputation as a result of the Christmas Day failure, which he has compared to the Bay of Pigs failure of John F.Kennedy. It can be seen in Annexure III. ( 7-1-10)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )



Obama: Good afternoon, everybody.

The immediate reviews that I ordered after the failed Christmas terrorist attack are now complete. I was just briefed on the findings and recommendations for reform, and I believe it's important that the American people understand the new steps that we're taking to prevent attacks and keep our country safe.

This afternoon my counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, John Brennan, will discuss his review into our terrorist watch list system, how our government failed to connect the dots in a way that would have prevented a known terrorist from boarding a plane for America, and the steps we're going to take to prevent that from happening again.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will discuss her review of aviation screening, technology and procedures, how that terrorist boarded a plane with explosives that could have killed nearly 300 innocent people, and how we'll strengthen aviation security going forward.

So today I want to just briefly summarize their conclusions and the steps that I've ordered to address them.

In our ever-changing world, America's first line of defense is timely, accurate intelligence that is shared, integrated, analyzed and acted upon quickly and effectively. That's what the intelligence reforms after the 9/11 attacks largely achieved. That's what our intelligence community does every day.

But, unfortunately, that's not what happened in the lead-up to Christmas Day. It's now clear that shortcomings occurred in three broad and compounding ways.

First, although our intelligence community had learned a great deal about the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that we knew that they sought to strike the United States and that they were recruiting operatives to do so, the intelligence community did not aggressively follow up on and prioritize particular streams of intelligence related to a possible attack against the homeland.

Second, this contributed to a larger failure of analysis, a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community and which together could have revealed that [Umar Farouk] AbdulMutallab was planning an attack.

Third, this in turn fed into shortcomings in the watch-listing system which resulted in this person not being placed on the no-fly list, thereby allowing him to board that plane in Amsterdam for Detroit.

In sum, the U.S. government had the information scattered throughout the system to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack. Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.

Now, that's why we took swift action in the immediate days following Christmas, including reviewing and updating the terrorist watch list system and adding more individuals to the no-fly list, and directing our embassies and consulates to include current visa information in their warnings of individuals with terrorist or suspected terrorist ties.

Today, I'm directing a series of additional corrective steps across multiple agencies. Broadly speaking, they fall into four areas.

First, I'm directing that our intelligence community immediately begin assigning specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high-priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively not just most of the time, but all of the time.

We must follow the leads that we get, and we must pursue them until plots are disrupted. And that means assigning clear lines of responsibility.

Second, I'm directing that intelligence reports, especially those involving potential threats to the United States, be distributed more rapidly and more widely. We can't sit on information that could protect the American people.

Third, I'm directing that we strengthen the analytical process, how our analysis -- how our analysts process and integrate the intelligence that they receive.

My director of national intelligence, Denny Blair, will take the lead in improving our day-to-day efforts. My Intelligence Advisory Board will examine the longer term challenge of sifting through vast universes of -- of intelligence and data in our information age.

And, finally, I'm ordering an immediate effort to strengthen the criteria used to add individuals to our terrorist watch lists, especially the no-fly list. We must do better in keeping dangerous people off airplanes, while still facilitating air travel.

So taken together, these reforms will improve the intelligence community's ability to collect, share, integrate, analyze and act on intelligence swiftly and effectively.

In short, they will help our intelligence community do its job even better and protect American lives.

But even the best intelligence can't identify in advance every individual who would do us harm.

So we need the security at our airports, ports, and borders and through our partnerships with other nations to prevent terrorists from entering America.

At the Amsterdam airport, AbdulMutallab was subjected to the same screening as other passengers. He was required to show his documents, including a valid U.S. visa. His carry-on bag was X-rayed. He passed through a metal detector.

But a metal detector can't detect the kind of explosives that were sewn into his clothes. As Secretary Napolitano will explain, the screening technologies that might have detected these explosives are in use at the Amsterdam airport but not at the specific checkpoints that he passed through.

Indeed, most airports in the world and in the United States do not yet have these technologies.

Now, there's no silver bullet to securing the thousands of flights into America each day, domestic and international. It will require significant investments in many areas. And that's why, even before the Christmas attack, we increased investments in homeland security and aviation security.

This includes an additional $1 billion in new systems and technologies that we need to protect our airports, more baggage screening, more passenger screening, and more advanced explosive detection capabilities, including those that can improve our ability to detect the kind of explosive used on Christmas.

These are major investments, and they'll make our skies safer and more secure.

Now, as I announced this week, we've taken a whole range of steps to improve aviation screening and security since Christmas, including new rules for how we handle visas within the government and enhanced screening for passengers flying from or through certain countries.

And today, I am directing that the Department of Homeland Security take additional steps, including strengthening our international partnerships to improve aviation screening and security around the world, greater use of the advanced explosive detection technologies that we already have, including imaging technology, and working aggressively in cooperation with the Department of Energy and our national labs to develop and deploy the next generation of screening technologies.

Now, there is, of course, no foolproof solution. As we develop new screening technologies and procedures, our adversaries will seek new ways to evade them, as was shown by the Christmas attack. In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary. That's what these steps are designed to do, and we will continue to work with Congress to ensure that our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement communities have the resources they need to keep the American people safe.

I ordered these two immediate reviews so that we could take immediate action to secure our country. But in the weeks and months ahead, we will continue a sustained and intensive effort of analysis and assessment so we leave no stone unturned in seeking better ways to protect the American people.

I have repeatedly made it clear in public with the American people and in private with my national security team that I will hold my staff, our agencies and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels.

Now, at this stage in the review process it appears that this incident was not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies.

That's why, in addition to the corrective efforts that I've ordered, I've directed agency heads to establish internal accountability reviews and directed my national security staff to monitor their efforts.

We will measure progress, and John Brennan will report back to me within 30 days and on a regular basis after that.

All of these agencies and their leaders are responsible for implementing these reforms, and all will be held accountable if they don't.

Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer, for ultimately the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility.

Over the past two weeks, we've been reminded again of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let's be clear about what this moment demands.

We are at war. We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.

And we've made progress. Al Qaeda's leadership is hunkered down. We have worked closely with partners, including Yemen, to inflict major blows against al Qaeda leaders. And we have disrupted plots at home and abroad and saved American lives.

And we know that the vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda. But it is clear that al Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations, not just in the Middle East but in Africa and other places, to do their bidding.

That's why I've directed my national security team to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits. And that's why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death, including the murder of fellow Muslims, while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress.

To advance that progress we've sought new beginnings with Muslim communities around the world, one in which we engage on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect and work together to fulfill the aspirations that all people share -- to get an education, to work with dignity, to live in peace and security.

That's what America believes in. That's the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists.

Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want. And so long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory.

We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children.

And in this cause, every one of us -- every American, every elected official -- can do our part. Instead of giving in to cynicism and division, let's move forward with the confidence and optimism and unity that defines us as a people, for now is not a time for partisanship, it's a time for citizenship, a time to come together and work together with the seriousness of purpose that our national security demands.

That's what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism. That's how we will prevail in this fight. And that's how we will protect our country and pass it, safer and stronger, to the next generation.

Thanks very much.



Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release January 07, 2010

White House Review Summary Regarding 12/25/2009 Attempted Terrorist Attack

SUBECT: Summary of the White House Review of the December 25,2009 Attempted Terrorist Attack 1

On December 25,2009 a Nigerian national, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an explosive device while onboard flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. The device did not explode, but instead ignited, injuring Mr. Abdulmutallab and two other passengers. The flight crew restrained Mr. Abdulmutallab and the plane safely landed. Mr. Abdulmutallab was taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and later was questioned by the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation (FBI). Mr. Abdulmutallab was not on the U.S. Government's (USG) terrorist watchlist, but was known to the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).


Following the December 25, 2009 attempt to bring down the flight by detonating an explosive device onboard flight 253, the President directed that Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan conduct a complete review of the terrorist watchlisting system and directed that key departments and agencies provide input to this review. What follows is a summary of this preliminary report.

First, it should be noted that the work by America's counterterrorism (CT) community has had many successes since 9111 that should be applauded. Our ability to protect the U.S. Homeland against terrorist attacks is only as good as the information and analysis that drives and facilitates disruption efforts. The thorough analysis of large volumes of information has enabled a variety of departments and agencies to take action to prevent attacks. On a great number of occasions since 9111, many of which the American people will never know about, the tremendous, hardworking corps of analysts across the CT community did just that, working day and night to track terrorist threats and run down possible leads in order to keep their fellow Americans safe. Yet, as the amount of information continues to grow, the challenge to bring disparate pieces of information - about individuals, groups, and vague plots - together to form a clear picture about the intentions of our adversaries grows as well.

These actions, informed by the excellent analytic work of the very same individuals and structure that is under review, have saved lives. Unfortunately, despite several opportunities that might have allowed the CT community to put these pieces together in this case, and despite the tireless effort and best intentions of individuals at every level of the CT community, that was not done. As a result, the recent events highlight our need to look for ways to constantly improve and assist our CT analysts, who are at the forefront of providing warning of terrorist attacks and keeping Americans safe.

1 This report reflects preliminary findings to facilitate immediate corrective action. Neither the report nor its findings obviate the need for continued review and analysis to ensure that we have the fullest possible understanding of the systemic problems that led to the attempted terrorist attack on December 25,2009. Note further that sensitive intelligence data was removed from this public report to protect sources and methods.


The preliminary White House review of the events that led to the attempted December 25 attack highlights human errors and a series of systematic breakdowns failed to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he was able to detonate an explosive device onboard flight 253. The most significant failures and shortcomings that led to the attempted terror attack fall into three broad categories:

A failure of intelligence analysis, whereby the CT community failed before December 25 to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the u.s. Government related to an emerging terrorist plot against the U.S. Homeland organized by al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and to Mr. Abdulmutallab, the individual terrorist;

A failure within the CT community, starting with established rules and protocols, to assign responsibility and accountability for follow up of high priority threat streams, run down all leads, and track them through to completion; and

Shortcomings of the watchlisting system, whereby the CT community failed to identify intelligence within u.S. government holdings that would have allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to be watchlisted, and potentially prevented from boarding an aircraft bound for the United States.

The most significant findings of our preliminary review are:

The U.S. Government had sufficient information prior to the attempted December 25 attack to have potentially disrupted the AQAP plot-i.e., by identifying Mr. Abdulmutallab as a likely operative of AQAP and potentially preventing him from boarding flight 253.

The Intelligence Community leadership did not increase analytic resources working on the full AQAP threat.

The watchlisting system is not broken but needs to be strengthened and improved, as evidenced by the failure to add Mr. Abdulmutallab to the No Fly watchlist.

A reorganization of the intelligence or broader counterterrorism community is not required to address problems that surfaced in the review, a fact made clear by countless other successful efforts to thwart ongoing plots.


It is important to note that the fundamental problems identified in this preliminary review are different from those identified in the wake of the 9111 attacks. Previously, there were formidable barriers to information sharing among departments and agencies--tied to firmly entrenched patterns of bureaucratic behavior as well as the absence of a single component that fuses expertise, information technology (IT) networks, and datasets-that have now, 8 years later, largely been overcome.

An understanding of the responsibilities of different analytic components of the CT community is critical to identifying what went wrong and how best to fix it. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) to be "the primary organization in the U.S. government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the U.S. government pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism 2." Intelligence Community guidance in 2006 further defined counterterrorism analytic responsibilities and tasked NCTC with the primary role within the Intelligence Community for bringing together and assessing all-source intelligence to enable a full understanding of and proper response to particular terrorist threat streams. Additionally, the Director of NCTC is in charge of the DNI Homeland Threat Task Force, whose mission is to examine threats to the U.S. Homeland from al-Qa'ida, its allies, and homegrown violent extremists.

Notwithstanding NCTC's central role in producing terrorism analysis, CIA maintains the responsibility and resource capability to "correlate and evaluate intelligence related to national security and provide appropriate dissemination of such intelligence. ,,3 CIA's responsibility for conducting all-source analysis in the area of counterterrorism is focused on supporting its operations overseas, as well as informing its leadership of terrorist threats and terrorist targets overseas. Therefore, both agencies - NCTC and CIA - have a role to play in conducting (and a responsibility to carry out) all-source analysis to identify operatives and uncover specific plots like the attempted December 25 attack.

The information available to the CT community over the last several months - which included pieces of information about Mr. Abdulmutallab, information about AQAP and its plans, and information about an individual now believed to be Mr. Abdulmutallab and his association with AQAP and its attack planning - was obtained by several agencies. Though all of that information was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the NCTC prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected, and as a result, the problem appears to be more about a component failure to "connect the dots," rather than a lack of information sharing. The information that was available to analysts, as is usually the case, was fragmentary and embedded in a large volume of other data.

Though the consumer base and operational capabilities of CIA and NCTC are somewhat different, the intentional redundancy in the system should have added an additional layer of protection in uncovering a plot like the failed attack on December 25. However, in both cases, the mission to "connect the dots" did not produce the result that, in hindsight, it could have - connecting identifying information about Mr. Abdulmutallab with fragments of information about his association with AQAP and the group's intention of attacking the U.S.

The majority of these discreet pieces of intelligence were gathered between mid-October and late December 2009.

For example, on November 18, Mr. Abdulmutallab's father met with U.S. Embassy officers in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss his concerns that his son may have come under the influence of unidentified extremists, and had planned to travel to Yemen. Though this information alone could not predict Mr. Abdulmutallab's eventual involvement in the attempted 25 December attack, it provided an opportunity to link information on him with earlier intelligence reports that contained fragmentary information.

Analytic focus during December was on the imminent AQAP attacks on Americans and American interests in Yemen, and on supporting CT efforts in Yemen.

Despite these opportunities and multiple intelligence products that noted the threat AQAP could pose to the Homeland, the different pieces of the puzzle were never brought together in this case the dots were never connected, and, as a result, steps to disrupt the plot involving Mr. Abdulmutallab were not taken prior to his boarding of the airplane with an explosive device and attempting to detonate it in-flight.


Intelligence is not an end to itself, nor are analytic products-they are designed to provide senior government leaders with the necessary information to make key decisions, but also to trigger action, including further collection, operational steps, and investigative adjustments. As noted above, NCTC and CIA have the primary and overlapping responsibility to conduct all-source analysis on terrorism. As with this intentional analytic redundancy, the CT community also has multiple and overlapping warning systems to ensure that departments and agencies are kept fully aware of ongoing threat streams.

NCTC is the primary organization that provides situational awareness to the CT community of ongoing terrorist threats and events, including through several daily written products that summarize current threat reporting for a broad audience, as well as meetings and video teleconferences that provide the opportunity for the CT community to engage in a real-time manner on this information. While the threat warning system involves analysis, it also extends to other elements within the CT community that should be responsible for following up and acting on leads as a particular threat situation develops.

In this context, the preliminary review suggests that the overlapping layers of protection within the CT community failed to track this threat in a manner sufficient to ensure all leads were followed and acted upon to conclusion. In addition, the White House and the National Security Staff failed to identify this gap ahead of time. No single component of the CT community assumed responsibility for the threat reporting and followed it through by ensuring that all necessary steps were taken to disrupt the threat. This argues that a process is needed to track terrorist threat reporting to ensure that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads associated with high visibility and high priority plotting efforts, in particular against the U.S. Homeland.


Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was included in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the failure to include Mr. Abdulmutallab in a watchlist is part of the overall systemic failure. Pursuant to the IRTPA, NCTC serves "as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups.,,4 As such, NCTC consolidates all information on known and suspected international terrorists in the Terrorist Identities Datarnart Environment. NCTC then makes this data available to the FBI-led Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which reviews nominations for inclusion in the master watchlist called the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). The TSC provides relevant extracts to each organization with a screening mission.

Hindsight suggests that the evaluation by watchlisting personnel of the information contained in the State cable nominating Mr. Abdulmutallab did not meet the minimum derogatory standard to watchlist. Watchlisting would have required all of the available information to be fused so that the derogatory information would have been sufficient to support nomination to be watchlisted in the Terrorist Screening Database. Watchlist personnel had access to additional derogatory information in databases that could have been connected to Mr. Abdulmutallab, but that access did not result in them uncovering the biographic information that would have been necessary for placement on the watchlist. Ultimately, placement on the No FIy List would have been required to keep Mr. Abdulmutallab off the plane inbound for the U.S. Homeland.


Mr. Abdulmutallab possessed a U.S. visa, but this fact was not correlated with the concerns of Mr. Abdulmutallab's father about Mr. Abdulmutallab's potential radicalization. A misspelling of Mr. Abdulmutallab's name initially resulted in the State Department believing he did not have a valid U.S. visa. A determination to revoke his visa, however, would have only occurred if there had been a successful integration of intelligence by the CT community, resulting in his being watchlisted.


The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered and potentially disrupted the December 25 attack-including by placing Mr. Abdulmutallab on the No Fly list -- but analysts within the CT community failed to connect the dots that could have identified and warned of the specific threat. The preponderance of the intelligence related to this plot was available broadly to the Intelligence Community.

NCTC and CIA are empowered to collate and assess all-source intelligence on the CT threat, but all-source analysts highlighted largely the evolving "strategic threat" AQAP posed to the West, and the U.S. Homeland specifically, in finished intelligence products. In addition, some of the improvised explosive device tactics AQAP might use against U.S. interests were highlighted in finished intelligence products.

The CT community failed to follow-up further on this "strategic warning" by moving aggressively to further identify and correlate critical indicators of AQAP's threat to the U.S. Homeland with the full range of analytic tools and expertise that it uses in tracking other plots aimed at the U.S. Homeland.

NCTC and CIA personnel who are responsible for watchlisting did not search all available databases to uncover additional derogatory information that could have been correlated with Mr. Abdulmutallab.

A series of human errors occurred----delayed dissemination of a finished intelligence report and what appears to be incomplete/faulty database searches on Mr. Abdulmutallab's name and identifying information.

"Information sharing" does not appear to have contributed to this intelligence failure; relevant all-source analysts as well as watchlisting personnel who needed this information were not prevented from accessing it.

Information technology within the CT community did not sufficiently enable the correlation of data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information.

There was not a comprehensive or functioning process for tracking terrorist threat reporting and actions taken such that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads associated with high visibility and high priority plotting efforts undertaken by alQa'ida and its allies, in particular against the U.S. Homeland.

Finally, we must review and determine the ongoing suitability of legacy standards and protocols in effect across the CT community, including criteria for watch lists, protocols for secondary screening, visa suspension and revocation criteria, and business processes across the government.


( Comments of Mark Mardell, the BBC Correspondent for North America )

Friday, 8 January 2010

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," the Obama administration said in the midst of economic meltdown and the same must go for the attempted bombing of a transatlantic jet as it flew into Detroit on Christmas Day.

Borrowing that sign from Harry Truman's desk - "the buck stops here" - is a bit of a hostage to fortune. But his advisors must hope that taking personal responsibility will go down well with the American people. Apparently, it worked for JFK. He said the same thing after the Bay of Pigs debacle. His approval ratings shot up. Only later did he fire the head of the CIA. By the way, Mr Obama is only following a tradition - all US presidents since Kennedy have used the phrase at least once.

More importantly, Mr Obama has rounded on his Republican critics. They attack him for not using the term "war on terror". This is not surprising - it is an article of liberal faith that you cannot wage war on abstract nouns. But he sounded a note of battle, not for the first time.

"We are at war. We are at war against al-Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them," he said.

But the nub of the criticism of Mr Obama is that by trying to close Guantanamo Bay, and by treating militants as criminals not enemies of the state, he is weak.

There is little doubt al-Qaeda scored a major victory over Detroit, even though no-one was badly hurt. After all, the core aim of al-Qaeda militants is not simply to kill people but to terrorise them, and so effect political change. The US is very jittery at the moment.

The criticism of some, immediately after the Christmas Day plot, was that Mr Obama was too cool, not emotional enough - in fact, insufficiently terrified. There is at least an argument that the most potent allies of the militants, the unwitting foot solders of al-Qaeda's cause, are all those columnists and bloggers who want to raise the status of the enemy from mere common criminal to warrior, and who worry that the US is not being sufficiently hysterical. The president seems aware that there is more ways than one for a militant group to win.

"We will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children," he said on Thursday.

A poke in the eye for former Vice-President Dick Cheney at the end of that, followed up by a plea for unity, confidence and optimism, continuing: "That's what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism."

Mr Obama is suggesting that it is his critics who have shown weakness and fear by abandoning American values. It is a bold attempt to turn this shambles into a statement that he is the really tough one, just tough in his own way.