ON THE WHITE HOUSE
By PETER BAKER
Published: December 30, 2009
HONOLULU – To the list of phrases it may be best for political leaders to avoid after a major security incident, add “the system worked” right after “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Just as the public did not really share President George W. Bush’s assessment of how things were going after Hurricane Katrina, so too was there a good deal of skepticism when President Obama’s homeland security secretary declared faith in a system that failed to stop a guy who tried to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day.
In both instances, the statements were meant to reassure a skittish public but seemed disconnected from the reality they were describing. Even Mr. Bush ultimately concluded that Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was not in fact doing a heck of a job; Mr. Brown was soon out. And in this case, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, does not think the system worked across the board, only that it worked in terms of the response after the attempted bombing took place.
But the furor over Ms. Napolitano’s comments on the Sunday talk shows demonstrated once again the perils of finding the appropriate balance during moments of crisis, between reassurance that the government knows what it is doing and recognition that maybe it sometimes does not. And it underscored how quickly such situations can devolve into sniping in today’s highly polarized politics of security.
Ms. Napolitano’s statement was just one of the targets for criticism after the botched Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines plane approaching Detroit. Critics also took aim at Mr. Obama for continuing his Hawaii vacation for three days before appearing in public to address the threat, and they cast the incident as part of a broader assertion that he is not serious enough about terrorism.
The White House and its Democratic allies fired back, noting that the security system that failed to stop the would-be bomber was put in place by President George W. Bush. They also complained that some Republican critics voted against a spending measure that included money for more security, and that a Republican senator was holding up confirmation of the head of the Transportation Safety Administration.
“There are those who want to make it a partisan issue,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “That’s become the norm in Washington, and that’s a shame, because on an issue like this, it shouldn’t be partisan.”
Of course, it often depends on who is in office and who is on the outside hurling spears. During Katrina, Rahm Emanuel, then a Democratic congressman, criticized Mr. Bush for not cutting his vacation short to return to Washington sooner. “He has to get off his mountain bike and back to work,” Mr. Emanuel said then.
Four years later, Mr. Emanuel is White House chief of staff for Mr. Obama, whose aides are making the same argument that Mr. Bush’s aides did during Katrina – that he is president no matter where he is and that he has been active behind closed doors, conferring with advisers and ordering action.
Hurricane Katrina was a crisis on a different order of magnitude than this event, certainly, but the politics of attack and parry do not dwell on context or proportionality. Instead, these moments can become about fueling competing narratives of a presidency. And they have become more caustic. Mr. Bush waited six days to make a public comment after Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, tried to blow up a plane in 2001, without enduring the same sort of criticism.
Ms. Napolitano has become the biggest lightning rod of this episode so far. She qualified her assertion that “the system worked” to mean what happened after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man linked to Al Qaeda, was stopped from destroying the airplane, rather than what happened before, when he was allowed to board the flight despite his presence in a terrorism database. But she was not always clear about that distinction during her appearances on the Sunday talk shows, leading to instant criticism from Republican lawmakers.
By late Sunday, administration officials realized they had a problem on their hands, and made sure that Ms. Napolitano would clarify when she made a previously scheduled appearance on the “Today” show on NBC the next morning. Still, she was being chided by editorial writers across a spectrum from The Washington Post to The New York Post.
One article in The New York Post bore the headline “Homeland Chief An Airhead – Says Security System Worked.” Charles Hurt wrote for the paper that “if by working, Napolitano means she has extended the government’s policy of porous borders to the skies, she is certainly correct.” Investor’s Business Daily declared that “clearly, Napolitano’s head must roll.” National Review weighed in with a piece entitled “Fire Napolitano.”
Ms. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor and federal prosecutor, has drawn conservative arrows before for eschewing terms like “war on terror.” But she appears comfortably safe in her job. White House officials consider her one of the stars of the cabinet for what they see as her firm handed management of an unruly department comprising 22 agencies and 180,000 employees.
Rallying behind her, Democrats pointed to others who, they argued, have played a direct role in hindering aviation security. They cited a procedural vote last summer when many House Republicans, including some of those now criticizing the White House, voted against an appropriations bill that included money for explosive-detection equipment.
They also pointed to Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, who suggested on Fox News that Mr. Obama wanted “to appease the terrorists.” Senator DeMint has blocked the confirmation of Erroll Southers, Mr. Obama’s nominee to direct the Transportation Security Administration, the agency responsible for aviation security.
Senator DeMint has held up the nomination out of concern that the administration might allow T.S.A. employees to unionize. “We have to out-think the terrorists,” he said on Fox on Sunday. “And when we formed the airport security system, we realized we could not use collective bargaining and unionization because of that need to be flexible.” Democrats countered that he was damaging security over whether baggage screeners get better benefits.
And so it goes in the aftermath of the thwarted Detroit bombing. A new year is approaching. Yet at least when it comes to political back and forth, the system in Washington is indeed working as usual.
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