WASHINGTON - - In an unusually frank assessment of the Detroit bomber investigation, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that a potentially catastrophic "mix of human and systemic failures" was responsible for allowing a suspected extremist to board a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day armed with an explosive device that could have killed nearly 300 people.
"A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said in brief remarks to reporters near his vacation retreat in Hawaii.
Obama was critical of unspecified U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security agencies for failing to act on information that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father, a respected Nigerian banker, provided to the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Abuja six weeks before the attacks.
U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday the information involved how Abdulmutallab may have become dangerously radicalized and involved with militants in Yemen.
Separately, White House officials told The Washington Post that the government had intelligence suggesting a possible attack on the United States by al-Qaida around Christmastime.
The president also hinted that U.S. intelligence agencies missed or ignored other clues before Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam with a valid U.S. visa and, allegedly, a hidden packet of military-grade explosives.
"Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together," Obama said. "Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged.
"The warning signs would have triggered red flags," he said, "and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."
Neither Obama nor members of his national security team would comment on the nature of that intelligence, or why the president had chosen to refer to it in general terms. Officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies also had no comment.
An angered Obama told reporters traveling with him on vacation here that he wanted a preliminary report by Thursday on what went wrong on Christmas Day, when the suspect carried explosives onto a flight from Amsterdam despite the fact the suspect had possible ties to al-Qaida.
It will take weeks for a more thorough inquiry into what allowed the 23-year-old Nigerian to board the airplane he is accused of trying to blow up. Law enforcement officials believe the suspect tried to ignite a two-part concoction of the high explosive PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive, setting off popping, smoke and some fire but no deadly detonation. Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to destroy an aircraft, is being held at the federal prison in Milan, Mich.
Two U.S. officials said that the intelligence-sharing lapse involved a report that the CIA prepared, based on information from the father, that was not shared with the broader intelligence or homeland security community for further follow-up or consideration for placement on the list.
"It contained information that potentially could have gotten this guy added to the no-fly list, and could very well have prevented this attack," an administration official said.
One of the officials also said that the CIA had been tracking an unspecified Nigerian since August but stressed that the agency did not have enough information to identify him as Abdulmutallab or to connect him to any plot.
"There are a lot of Nigerians out there," the official said. That official also disagreed with the idea that the information could have helped stop the Christmas attack.
"The notion that there was some magic piece of intelligence that could have put him on the watch list that wasn't shared just isn't correct," the official said.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Abdulmutallab had been placed in one government advisory system, but never made it onto more restrictive lists that would have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorist screeners, despite his father's warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month. Those warnings also did not result in Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa's being revoked.
The Central Intelligence Agency said it worked with embassy officials to make sure that Abdulmutallab's name made it into the government's database of suspected terrorists and noted his potential extremist connections in Yemen. The CIA also said it forwarded that information to the National Counterterrorism Center.
Officials in Yemen were investigating whether Abdulmutallab spent time with al-Qaida militants there during the months leading up to the botched bombing attack.
Administrators, teachers and fellow students at the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language, where Abdulmutallab had enrolled to study Arabic, told the Associated Press that he attended school for only the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began in late August.
They also said he was not openly extremist, though he expressed anger over Israel's actions against Palestinians in Gaza.
Officials also noted Tuesday that Amsterdam, where Abdulmutallab boarded his flight to Detroit, is one of nine locations where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are stationed to do additional screening on U.S.-bound passengers who have been flagged as a potential risk.
But it is unlikely Abdulmutallab would have been flagged because the Customs and Border Patrol officers do not routinely screen all passengers against the names of individuals on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, known as TIDE, which was the only place that Abdulmutallab was listed.
The government put in place enhanced screening procedures for passengers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington to catch potential terrorists. On U.S.-bound flights from overseas, CBP checks passenger names against some lists of potential terrorists, but not against all information the government keeps.
On top of that, airport security equipment did not detect the bomb-making devices and materials Abdulmutallab is accused of carrying on board the Northwest Airlines flight.
A CIA official declined to comment on whether CIA personnel in Nigeria sent a cable to headquarters in Washington that was not disseminated to the wider intelligence community.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.