In his second official statement regarding the failed Christmas Day terror bombing aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, President Barack Obama acknowledged “systemic failure” in the nation’s response to this particular threat. He added that American security forces need to act quickly to fix the flaws in the system. Taking no questions, Obama addressed reporters from his ten-day vacation in Hawaii:
"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable."
What does a working system look like? After the father of 23-year old suspect Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab had informed American officials of the potential threat his son posed, “a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged," said Obama. "The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
The president continued:
"There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together…It's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have."
The remarks stand in significant contrast with statements made by Janet Napolitano, head of the George W. Bush-created Department of Homeland Security. Appearing on Sunday talk shows some 36 hours after the incident, she seemed confident that “the system worked.” As the week progressed, however, Napolitano walked back her words, noting instead that “Our system did not work in this instance…I think the comment is being taken out of context.”
The terror attempt has once more put the contentious issue of national security on the table during a year dominated by domestic and economic policy conversations, as well as strategy for the traditional wars being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reactions have ranged from the hyperventilatory to the dismissive.
Napolitano’s handling of the incident has led some Republicans to call for her resignation. Other lawmakers, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have advocated preemptively attacking Yemen, the unstable nation where the alleged bomber claims he was trained by Al-Qaeda. In light of the potential connection—as well as reports that Mutallab’s trainers were previously held by American authorities in 2007—Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined Lieberman in calling for a halt in the transfer of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
While it is Republican Sen. Jim DeMint who is holding up the confirmation of Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, some Democratic supporters of the president have been reticent to step out and defend his approach to the incident. Others have applauded the White House’s lack of hysteria as an appropriate, measured response—given that whichever anti-American faction perpetrated the attack would like to see him sweat. Marc Ambinder noted that the president went golfing the day after the attack for a reason:
"In a sense, he is projecting his calm on the American people, just as his advisers are convinced that the Bush administration projected their panic and anger on the self-same public eight years ago."
Indeed, after sounding very irritated about the “failure” on his watch, the president went for a swim. But then again, he probably still gets to have a blanket when he travels by airplane. How do you think Obama is handling the fallout?
UPDATE: Obama has ordered interagency reviews on aviation screening and watchlist procedures complete by the end of the week. In a memo addressed to the heads of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, FBI, CIA and other agencies, Obama asked for:
1. "Recommendations for strengthening aviation screening technology and procedures and outlining how the Department of Homeland Security plans to proceed."
2. An inventory and "a written account of how any such intelligence or other information was handled, shared, and acted upon within individual departments and agencies and what intelligence or other information was shared with others."
3. "A written account of the standards and processes for nominating, reviewing, and approving or denying individuals for placement on the Terrorist Watchlist."
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.