Critics should be especially careful if they want to argue that the Christmas Day security screening failures are the fault of the Obama administration because it was in power when the lapses occurred. By that logic, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should be blamed on President George W. Bush and his Republican administration. The point of emphasis is the fallacy of logic known as post hoc ergo propter hoc in which one assumes that because one event precedes another, the first event caused the second one. In this case, the (erroneous) reasoning is that because the Christmas Day attempted bombing occurred after Obama became President, then his ascendency to power must be the cause of the security failure. That is likely to be no more accurate than an assertion that Bush's ascendency in 2001 caused the 9/11 attacks.
Republicans have wasted no time in attacking Democrats on intelligence and screening failures leading up to the failed Christmas Day bombing of Flight 253 — a significant departure from the calibrated, less partisan responses that have followed other recent terrorist activity.
The strategy — coming as the Republican leadership seeks to exploit Democratic weaknesses heading into the 2010 midterms — is in many ways a natural for a party that views protecting the U.S. homeland as its ideological raison d’etre and electoral franchise.
President Obama’s GOP critics have been emboldened during the past 48 hours by the stumbling initial response of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who spent Monday retracting her Sunday claim that “the system worked” in the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab’s near takedown of a jet ferrying nearly 300 people from Amsterdam to Detroit.
“In the past six weeks, you’ve had the Fort Hood attack, the D.C. Five and now the attempted attack on the plane in Detroit … and they all underscored the clear philosophical difference between the administration and us,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
“I think Secretary Napolitano and the rest of the Obama administration view their role as law enforcement, first responders dealing with the aftermath of an attack,” Hoekstra told POLITICO. “And we believe in a forward-looking approach to stopping these attacks before they happen.”
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) went even further, telling FOX News that the Christmas attack proved President Obama’s talk-to-your-enemies approach might actually be encouraging terrorists.
“[S]oft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo, these things are not going to appease the terrorists,” he said. “They’re going to keep coming after us, and we can’t have politics as usual in Washington, and I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got right now with airport security.”
Obama didn’t address his critics during a brief appearance in Hawaii on Monday, saying only that "the American people should be assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep you and your family safe and secure during this busy holiday season. … As Americans, we will never give into fear and division."
A White House spokesman says the administration wants to avoid making the national security and terrorism a partisan issue.
“The president doesn't think we should play politics with issues like these. He hasn't. His response has been fact-based and appropriate and will continue to be as such,” said deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton.
But other Democrats say the GOP’s yuletide political offensive could backfire on Republicans, putting the spotlight on the party’s own less-than-spotless record on homeland security.
Exhibit A: DeMint’s controversial “hold” on Obama’s choice to lead the Transportation Safety Administration, Erroll Southers, which has left the agency leaderless during a critical period of reappraisal and potential reorganization.
“Considering that this group has been playing politics with the TSA for months, their new-found concern about safety seems a bit contrived,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who acknowledged “legitimate beefs” about lapses leading up to the Christmas Day bombing attempt.
DeMint says he’s blocking Southers because the top cop at Los Angeles International Airport hasn’t vowed to block TSA unionization. And spokesman Wes Denton said the agency is better off headless than with big labor running the nation’s airports.
“This is an important debate because many Americans don't want someone running the TSA who stands ready to give union bosses the power to veto or delay future security measures at our airports,” Denton said.
DeMint isn’t the only Republican raising concerns that Abdulmuttalab was allowed to board the plane despite being placed on a list of potentially dangerous foreign nationals and that he managed to escape detection despite carrying a large amount of explosive powder sewn into his underwear.
Early Monday morning, the House Republican Conference blasted an e-mail offering up a half-dozen GOP lawmakers to discuss national security — and to criticize the Obama White House.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the top Homeland Security Committee Republican, criticized the Obama administration for not going public more quickly to reassure Americans that the skies are safe.
Hoekstra, for his part, blamed the president for “downplaying” the threat of terrorism and slammed the White House for failing to provide detailed bipartisan briefings.
Democrats, on the other hand, say they have plenty of ammunition for a homeland security counterattack.
Over the summer, 108 House Republicans voted against the final conference report of the 2010 appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which included funding for explosives detection systems and other aviation security measures.
The no voters cited a procedural dispute over the appropriations process. They included Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Hoekstra and a who’s who of big-name House Republicans: Reps. Mike Pence, Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Joe Wilson (R-SC).
The conference bill included more than $4 billion for "screening operations," including $1.1 billion in funding for explosives detection systems, with $778 million intended for buying and installing the systems.
“It’s a base political calculation,” said one senior House Democratic aide. “It’s risky to play politics with something like this. The morning after [the attempted bombing], Republicans had already drawn a bright line on this.”
In June, both parties overwhelmingly backed Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who inserted an amendment into the House's massive Homeland Security appropriations bill barring the use of full-body image scans as "primary" screening tools at airports.
The amendment, which died in the Senate, passed the House on a bipartisan 310 to 118 vote, with conservative libertarians joining liberals, all decrying the scans as a major invasion of privacy.
It would also have given passengers the option of getting a pat-down — which might have also detected the Christmas bomb — while banning the storage and copying of the images, which show a virtual picture of a person's naked body.
The measure was little-noticed at the time, but it could have a big impact if the Obama administration follows through on its pledge to increase such imaging, which experts say could have detected the explosives hidden on the body of the would-be airplane bomber.
Chaffetz, for his part, doesn’t regret the amendment, telling the Salt Lake Tribune, "It's a difficult balance between protecting our civil liberties and protecting the safety of people on airplanes," adding, “I believe there's technology out there that can identify bomb-type materials without necessarily overly invading our privacy."
In the coming days, GOP criticism of the administration’s actions may give way to a louder, if more decorous din from Democrats questioning security procedures here and abroad.
A handful of key congressional chairmen have already scheduled hearings to see what did go wrong on that Northwestern Airlines flight.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, says his panel will investigate how the attempted bomber slipped through security and screening procedures.
"I view Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a terrorist who evaded our homeland security defenses and who would have killed hundreds of people if the explosives he tried to detonate had worked," Lieberman said.
"What we know about the Abdulmutallab case raises two big, urgent questions that we are holding this hearing to answer: Why aren't airline passengers flying into the U.S. checked against the broadest terrorist database, and why isn't whole body scanning technology that can detect explosives in wider use?"