Obama and Napolitano: That's a System Failure

BlogHer Original Post

For the Obama Administration, and Janet Napolitano in particular, this has been a week full of security mishaps and terrible outerwear.

As the country struggles to understand how a man who was reported to American authorites as having joined Al Qaeda by his own father managed to purchase an airline ticket with cash, board a plane in Nigeria with a suspicious bulge in his shorts, switch planes in Amsterdam and try to set his undies afire over the Atlantic was allowed to fly in the first place. Thanks to the quick thinking of a few courageous passengers, the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit arrived intact. Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano's reputation and, judging by her choice of clothing, dignity, did not.

In an interview with CNN the day after Christmas, Napolitano decided that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the system designed to protect Americans from renegade pantybombers "worked."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that the thwarting of the attempt to blow up an Amsterdam-Detroit airline flight Christmas Day demonstrated that "the system worked."

Asked by CNN's Candy Crowley on "State of the Union" how that could be possible when the young Nigerian who has been charged with trying to set off the bomb was able to smuggle explosive liquid onto the jet, Napolitano responded: "We're asking the same questions."

Napolitano added that there was "no suggestion that [the suspect] was improperly screened."

Shortly following this announcement, Janet ditched the excuses and the skinned La-Z-Boy and took back her statement on the Today show where she announced that: "Our system did not work in this instance.  No one is happy or satisfied with that." As Fausta of Fausta's blog states, it was quite a nice Emily Litella moment.

Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press points out that the Obama Administration is facing tough criticism from both sides of the aisle both for Napolitano's comments and for President Obama's own behavior following the attempted attack.

The Obama administration claim 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" when New Orleans was sinking under deadly Hurricane Katrina. But both raised disturbing questions about presidential response in a time of crisis...

Until Monday, the president had not been heard from publicly since the Christmas Day scare. He was ordering stepped-up security measures and after-action reviews behind the scenes, but also enjoying his Hawaiian vacation with games of golf, basketball and tennis and trips to the beach.

He drew questions about his level of involvement by not getting his first briefing on the incident until two hours after it was all over - and then only for 15 minutes, when he departed for the gym.

His aides defended it as a carefully crafted response, but Monday morning, everyone was back on message and trying very hard to explain away the "mishap."

Like most Americans, I try not to think too hard about what happens in the bowels of government, assuming, wrongly, that the government has my best interests in mind when it executes its policies and is doing all it can to protect me. Now, of course I know better from the one experience I had reporting “suspicious activity” on the CTA to the Department of Homeland Security, who was fairly convinced that my report of a squirrelly-looking, vaguely Middle Eastern dude using a Handicam to record major Chicago landmarks from the El was a figment of my imagination, possibly brought on by bad sausage before a nap.

But I never suspected that the "system," was, instead of a real system designed to anticipate and head off terrorist attacks before they get the point where airline passengers are entrusted with the responsibility of putting out, quite literally, deadly fires, the system DHS has in place actually relies on average people to do its job for it. And by "its job," I think I mean the most basic activity necessary to root out and prevent acts of terrorism.

And in this case, they didn't really need to do much more than take a phone call. The terrorist's dad called up DHS and flat-out told them that his son had received his Welcome Package from Al Qaeda International and had started his first homework assignment. Granted, his dad didn’t have any specifics at the time, but if the former Economic Minister of Nigeria calls you and tells you that a dude with a lot of money and a lot of spare time has suddenly thrown in his lot with the Islamic Fundamentalists and now may or may not be planning Jihad, I suspect you listen. But, honestly, I suspect what the DHS actually did was either suspect that this was just another Nigerian email spam and delete it, or tell this man to take two aspirin and commit himself in the morning. Sure, if I were to get an email from the Honorable Umaru Abdulmutallab, Finance Minister of Nigeria, asking me to please help him, I might send it to the trash bin, too…the first time. The second time, after reading where he thought his son might be plotting to blow stuff up in the name of Allah, I’d probably listen.

But no.

This dude, of course, didn’t write an anti-American paper or taunt the TSA. He didn’t accidentally pack nail polish and hairspray into his bag or travel through security with a pair of nail scissors. He didn’t accidentally have the same name as a GitMo detainee or an ACLU lawsuit plaintiff. He wasn’t Ted Kennedy. What am I getting at, you ask? Well, these and plenty others are real-life incidents where the TSA or airport security prevented a mostly-innocuous person from boarding a plane because their name appeared on the No Fly List. Wikipedia has most of the newsworthy ones, but its surprising how many people are prevented from boarding planes in this country because they participated in peace marches, were named Catherine “Cat” Stevens (not the other one, that dude is really very creepy - who knew that the guy who wrote Peace Train would be one of the loudest voices calling for the death of Salman Rushdie?), or got on the wrong side of a civil rights lawsuit?

Now, I’m not saying that, in every one of these instances that the government was wrong. My general impression is that if you mix it up with terrorists, even in general, you probably should be subject to extra questioning and investigation before being allowed to do things like fly. But the point is, we place tons of people on the No Fly List for all sorts of crazy reasons, and we execute that edict on a regular basis. People who end up on the No Fly List aren’t allowed to fly. But there was a hangup about putting out an alert about this guy? There was something that prevented his name from setting off an alarm? Somewhere along the line, Northwest Airlines/KLM and Delta must have checked their passenger registers for weird names, no? Some agent somewhere must have had some idea that a dude who was reported to DHS for actually joining Al Qaeda was on his way into the US, right?

And instead of taking a step back and rethinking our national approach to preventing terrorism, refining the policies of the No Fly List and correcting Bush Administration overreaches and errors against civil rights while creating a smarter system, the first and immediate response by the government has been...more possible violations of personal privacy as they move to insitute full-body scans in airports.

As it happens, incompetence is not a civil liberties issue. To the contrary, its governmental incompentence that leads to greater intrusion into civil liberties as they work to correct their own mishaps by pressing for greater and greater control over every aspect of the system itself. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we continue to assume that change doesn't need to be demanded, errors don't need to be examined, corrected and the system refined, but instead more control needs to be ceded to the government which, as this event shows us, is having a hard time dealing even with the easy ones. We may all pay the price because the people in charge continue to champion a system which takes on easy targets while letting important ones, obvious ones, slip through its hands.

The system didn't, doesn't and won't work, Janet Napolitano. Its probably an impossible problem to solve. So until we solve it, I think we all need to say a quick thank you to the passengers of that airplane for their bravery and quick thinking, and quietly hope in the collective courage of the American spirit, which, while not the best at orchestrating efforts requiring the assistance of the Federal government, generally knows when it needs to kick some terrorist booty.

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