Questions are raised on response to crisis


POSTED: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

WASHINGTON » The Obama administration statement that “;the system worked”; after a failed aircraft bombing wasn't quite as jolting as President George W. Bush's “;Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job”; while New Orleans sank under deadly Hurricane Katrina. But both raised questions about presidential response in a time of crisis.

Bush's praise for his beleaguered FEMA director, Michael Brown, came while storm evacuees remained trapped in the Louisiana Superdome and victims' bloated bodies floated in the streets. It became a clarion call for all his administration did wrong during the 2005 calamity—and a larger symbol of all that people disliked generally about Bush.

Obama is dealing with a crisis of a different sort, Friday's attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands. It ended with only a quickly extinguished fire, no lives lost and the man in custody.

Still, the close call prompted alarm about government performance.

» How did airport security, improved at much cost after the 2001 terrorist attacks, miss the bomber's concealed explosives?

» How did the terrorist watch-list system allow Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to keep his American tourist visa and avoid extra flight screening despite his father telling authorities his concerns about the younger man's radicalization?

» Why didn't Abdulmutallab's lack of luggage, and cash purchase for an international flight, raise suspicions?

» Why was the plot thwarted only by an apparent explosive malfunction and fellow passengers' quick action?

Amid those questions, administration officials' repeated statements that “;the system worked”; were jarring.

Officials insist the assertion, made Sunday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on television talk shows, referred only to heightened security procedures scrambled into place after the incident.

They say it is being purposely taken out of context by partisans playing politics with near disaster.

They note Obama ordered two reviews, of the nation's multilayered terrorist watch-list system and of airport security procedures, something he clearly wouldn't do if he believed there were no flaws.

Gibbs and Napolitano also were hoping, with the busy holiday travel season still in full force, to instill confidence in air safety.

“;The system worked,”; Napolitano declared on CNN during questioning about the lapses. Gibbs used nearly the same language on CBS, saying that “;in many ways, this system has worked,”; without elaborating.

Later that same day, Napolitano put it differently on ABC, saying “;once the incident occurred, the system worked.”; She tried again on Monday, saying in a round of TV interviews that “;our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that.”;

But the damage was done. Members of Congress—Republicans, but some Democrats, too—were incredulous that “;the system worked”; was used in any context to describe what happened.

“;It is insulting that the Obama administration would make such a claim,”; Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a campaign e-mail to raise funds for his run for governor in Michigan.

Republican Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl criticized President Barack Obama and his administration's response yesterday.

McCain said Obama should have addressed the nation earlier about the botched attack. Kyl said he now doesn't feel “;totally safe”; with Napolitano as homeland security chief.