WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said instability in Yemen posed a global threat and pledged on Monday to plug any holes in U.S. security procedures after a Christmas Day airline bombing attempt.
Clinton, in her first comments since the attempted December 25 attack on a Detroit-bound plane sparked criticism of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policies, said she would discuss additional steps with other cabinet members this week.
“With respect to what happened with the terrorist on the plane coming into Detroit, we are not satisfied,” Clinton told reporters following a meeting with visiting Qatar Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.
“So we will be meeting with the president tomorrow to go over our international reviews, to hear what others in our government also have concluded and to take whatever additional steps are necessary,” she said.
White House officials have conceded the Christmas Day bomb plot exposed errors but have played down the need for a total overhaul of the U.S. security system just as the country enters the politically tricky 2010 mid-term election season.
Republicans have accused President Barack Obama, who returned on Monday from a Hawaii vacation, and his Democratic administration of being weak on terrorism and unable to fix intelligence gaps that have lingered since the September 11, 2001, hijacked-plane attacks.
House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner said on Monday the Christmas plot raised new questions about the Obama administration’s security strategy, including its plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer some inmates to U.S. facilities.
“All year long, Republicans have asked the question: what is this Administration’s overarching strategy to confront the terrorist threat and keep America safe?,” Boehner said in a statement.
Despite the focus on the failed December 25 plot, White House spokesman Bill Burton did not expect the issue to keep Obama from addressing jobs, healthcare and the rest of his agenda.
“When you’re President of the United States you’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Burton said.
Security -- such as new requirements for closer screening of airline passengers from 14 countries -- would continue to be beefed up as the review progressed, he told reporters aboard Air Force One.
“The president hasn’t just waited for all the different pieces to come in before acting ... safety and security measures are moving forward even as the review goes on.”
Two separate Senate committees on Monday announced hearings for January 20 to examine missteps that led to the failed attack, including improving capabilities to prevent such attacks and the effectiveness of passenger screening.
With the U.S. military facing a big increase in forces battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and burdened with continued responsibilities in Iraq, Yemen has proved an unwelcome new problem on the U.S. security radar.
U.S. authorities said the Christmas bomb attempt was carried out by a 23-year-old Nigerian man who forged links to al Qaeda while in the impoverished country, which sits at the tip of the Arabian peninsula.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen branch of Osama bin Laden’s network, claimed responsibility for the attempt to blow up the plane, which was carrying almost 300 people.
Clinton said the U.S. Embassy in Yemen -- which closed on Sunday along with two other Western embassies due to unspecified al Qaeda threats -- would only reopen when security conditions permit.
Yemeni forces on Monday killed at least two al Qaeda militants it said were behind the threats, Yemeni security officials said.
Clinton said the situation in Yemen, where the U.S. supports a government offensive against Islamic militants amid a Shi‘ite revolt in the north and separatist unrest in the south, was of global concern.
“Obviously, we see global implications from the war in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by al Qaeda in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region,” Clinton told reporters.
She said a meeting on Yemen planned for London in January would give the international community a chance to assess both the threat in Yemen and the world’s response.
Obama has asked for as much as $63 million in aid for Yemen in 2010 -- up from about $40 million in 2009, the State Department said. Yemen also received an additional $67 million in special funds earmarked to support its counter-terrorism and border control efforts in 2009.
General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said last week the United States would more than double its security assistance program for Yemen. But the Pentagon on Monday cautioned that no decision had been made.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Jeff Mason, Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao and Eric Walsh