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US president holidays with terror on his mind

world Updated: Dec 30, 2010 00:28 IST

US President Barack Obama was peeved. It was Christmas 2009 and a Nigerian had been accused of trying to blow up a plane bound for Detroit. Obama was supposed to have state-of-the-art secure telecommunications capabilities inside his luxury beachfront rental home here. Instead, he was stuck relying on operators to connect him to his top counter terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan. Once, as he was trying to reach Brennan, the call dropped.

The president made his displeasure clear. This year, he has Brennan on speed dial.

The communications upgrade - Obama now has "more diverse and reliable secure voice capability in his vacation residence, with the best possible quality available," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser traveling with him - is just one example of how the memory of the attempted bombing last Christmas Day hangs over the presidential Hawaiian escape.

In recent weeks, concerns about terrorism in Europe have spiked, with intelligence officials reporting increased chatter about threats.

The White House has made substantive and public relations changes to Obama's vacation, adopting what Juan C. Zarate, a counter terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, calls a strategy of "taking no chances and assuming the worst."

It was no accident that Brennan called President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen on Christmas Eve; intelligence experts believe the man accused in the bomb plot last Christmas, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, trained in Yemen and obtained explosives there. The White House said Brennan reminded Saleh of "the importance of taking forceful action" against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the militant Islamist network.