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Tilting at Windmills

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December 28, 2009

WHETHER 'THE SYSTEM' WORKED.... Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been catching all manner of hell over the last 24 hours for having said "the system worked" when it came to the AbdulMutallab incident in the skies over Michigan on Christmas. I can see why this was an awkward choice of words, but the reaction has been way over the top.

Napolitano's reference to the system, in context, was clearly in reference to the federal response to the attempted terrorism:

"Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated. So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly."

This is hardly scandalous stuff. When there's an attempted act of terrorism, the administration has a series of steps it wants to see executed, quickly and effectively. What Napolitano was talking about was officials' ability to do just that -- getting the right information to the right people at the right time so the right teams are ready, even on Christmas day. This wasn't some drill -- officials were given tasks in response to the attempted attack and "the system worked," inasmuch as everyone did what they were supposed to do after the incident.

Much of the political world is throwing a fit, though, because "the system" didn't "work" before the incident. But isn't that obvious? The fact that AbdulMutallab was on the plane with a potential explosive device in his underwear pretty much proves that there was a breakdown at some point in the system. This much should be pretty clear to everyone, and it's certainly clear to the head of DHS.

Asked about yesterday's three-word phrase, Napolitano told Matt Lauer this morning, "I think the comment is being taken out of context. What I'm saying is, once the incident occurred, moving forward, we were immediately able to notify the 128 flights in the air of protective measures to take, immediately able to notify law enforcement on the ground...."

She added that the system that should have kept AbdulMutallab off the plane "failed miserably" and that "no one is happy or satisfied with that."

The various right-wing voices are calling for Napolitano's head, apparently because of the inconsequential three-word phrase. It's hard to take this nonsense especially seriously since those identical right-wing voices also called for Napolitano's head when they learned the Bush administration sought reports on the potential threats posed by radical extremists in the U.S.

Besides, if awkward phrasing is grounds for removal from high-ranking federal office, George W. Bush never would have made it through his first year of his presidency.

The question isn't whether Napolitano's choice of words was adequate; the question is whether she's performing well running an nearly-impossible-to-oversee federal agency. By fair standards, she's not only proven herself capable and competent, but also the best secretary DHS has had in its relatively short history.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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Her"inconsequential three-word phrase" led to calls for her removal, preferably along with her head. Were those same Reich Wing voices also calling for heads to roll after another "inconsequential three-word phrase?" I speak, of course, of the immortal words, "heckofa job, Brownie!"

On another note, the esteemed author Michelle Malkin will consume the entire THREE HOURS of C-SPAN's "In Depth booknotes" this Sunday.

Posted by: DAY on December 28, 2009 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

You have to understand the Rethugligan POV: while a poor choice of words after an act of terrorism is grounds for beheading, invading the wrong country after an act of terrorism is grounds for winning the Medal of Freedom.


Posted by: Zorro on December 28, 2009 at 4:52 PM | PERMALINK

Is the TSA/DHS responsible for passenger screening in Lagos and Amsterdam?

Posted by: Randy Paul on December 28, 2009 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

So, whose head did they demand after the shoe bomber's failed attempt?

Posted by: RobW on December 28, 2009 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

Randy Paul@4:56

I've asked the same question in several forums and been ignored. But, I keep seeing reports that there was a failure at DHS.


Posted by: Winkandanod on December 28, 2009 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

"...she's not only proven herself capable and competent...". Steve Benen

Oh sure, if you're only going to look at her qualifications....

Posted by: Doug on December 28, 2009 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

What worked, at least on this particular flight, was one passenger's cool head. And his activity has been verified by other passengers. Unlike the fRight's self-anointed "hero" of a couple of weeks back, whose story fell apart on scrutiny. "Funny" how that other guy's derring-dos had been on all frighty blogs, but there seems to be silence about this one. Of course, this guy is a demmed furriner...

Posted by: exlibra on December 28, 2009 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

Besides, if awkward phrasing is grounds for removal from high-ranking federal office, George W. Bush never would have made it through his first year of his presidency.*************************

No kidding! And where were these same attackers when the Bush admin was spouting off idiotic remarks right and left?! Can anyone forget these classics?

"There is NO DOUBT that Saddam Hussein has reconstituted his WMD program." - DICK Cheney

[RE: The war in Iraq] "It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." - Donald Dumbsfeld

OK, now almost 9 YEARS later, OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! (metaphorically, of course). Repiglicans, rank hypocrites of the first order.

Posted by: you gotta be kidding me on December 28, 2009 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

Yeppers! That lovely 'family values crowd' that has NOTHING to do over Christmas but bitch about the LIBRULS...gotta love 'em.

Posted by: SYSPROG on December 28, 2009 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

I watched the CNN interview and it was obvious to me that Janet Napolitano was talking about how well the system worked AFTER the failed incident. Who in their right mind would say that overall, everything worked as planned when a plane was almost brought down.

But in the current partisan climate, the media and the right wing MUST find something to complain about. Even if they have to twist themselves into pretzels to do it. They are constantly trying to find an Obama problem that is comparable to the Bush years.

Right on schedule, the Larry King Show will have former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge on tonight. I guess they couldn't get Peter King and Pete Hoestra to chime in on how bad the Obama administration has handled this incident.

The latest meme is why did it take so long for the president to speak. Now my guess is that the Republicans will complain that the president didn't mention the war on terror in his comments.


Posted by: Ladyhawke on December 28, 2009 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

@RandyPaul and @Winkandanod

Right with you on this question, and still no answer anywhere.

My other question: Since security screening for foreign nationals begins with the visa application and issuance process, is a review of that process underway? Which Federal agency is now responsible for visas -- State or Homeland Security or some combination?

And my other question: Either of the concerns raised by Abdulmutallab's father -- "My son is missing" and "My son may be up to something bad" -- should have flagged his visa so he was pulled out of the line for further questioning when he next tried to use it.

Posted by: jpeckjr on December 28, 2009 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

Napolitano's reference to the system, in context, was clearly in reference to the federal response to the attempted terrorism [...] When there's an attempted act of terrorism, the administration has a series of steps it wants to see executed, quickly and effectively. What Napolitano was talking about was officials' ability to do just that -- getting the right information to the right people at the right time so the right teams are ready, even on Christmas day.

WOW. I am SO impressed by that conception of "the system" "working". Getting "the right" information! To people! "Even" on Christmas day!

Are we grading on a curve here?

To be fair: you're right that this is probably what she meant. You're wrong that it's not scandalous. It most certainly is scandalous that the head of the Department of Homeland Security thinks her job is merely to "get information to" people after an attempted attack, and is so proud of such a meager accomplishment that she considers it boastworthy.

Much of the political world is throwing a fit, though, because "the system" didn't "work" before the incident. But isn't that obvious?

Yes it is. So why did you feel the need to write this post in knee-jerk half-hearted defense?

By fair standards, she's not only proven herself capable and competent,

How so? By...doing...what?

I don't necessarily care to see her fired or step down or anything (if only because I don't think anyone else likely to be placed in that slot would do any better). But these knee-jerk, your-side my-side defenses are a bit pathetic. Can't you just admit she's a hack who said a dumb thing?

Posted by: Sonic Charmer on December 28, 2009 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

It is hard to escape the impression that certain "conservatives" are actually disappointed the bomb didn't go off and take the plane and passengers down so they could rip into Obama. I'm beginning to feel it may be time to dust off the sedition statutes

Posted by: Russell Aboard M/V Sunshine on December 28, 2009 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

I heard somewhere that the powder wasn't something they screen for, and the liquid was less than an ounce.

So the failure, as I see it, is that the rules still allow people to carry stuff onto planes.

Of course once we can't do that, EVERYTHING will be checked and the attackers will switch their efforts to blowing up luggage.

There ARE heads that should roll, of course. I'd start with Michelle Malkin's.

Posted by: cmac on December 28, 2009 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

The only reason the "system worked" is because the bomb didn't work. If the bomb had gone off it would have been many hours or days before anyone knew if this was a terrorist act or not. Then the system which worked would have been the NTSB and the investigative agents identifying body parts.

It wasn't just a poor choice of words. If a prisoner escaped from prison, would anyone comment on how quickly the local authorities were notified and conclude the system worked?

The main problem was using the word "system". The passengers and crew were not part of the system and none of them were "playing a role".

Someone needs to slap some sense into this person, she is an accomplished politician. What happened to her? She needs to wake up.

Posted by: tomj on December 28, 2009 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

I've done some online research about the visa process. As near as I can tell, visa processing is handled by the State Department and visa enforcement is handled by Homeland Security, but I think it depends on the type of visa. There are 23 classes of nonimmigrant visas, issued to people who do not plan to become permanent residents of the US.

News reports say Abdulmutallab had a "regular visitors visa" with a two year expiration issued in June 2008 at the US Embassy in London. From my reading of 8 CFR Part 214.2(b), that would be either a B-1 visa for business travel or a B-2 visa for pleasure travel. But the same regs say those visas can be issued with a six-month minimum and a 12-month maximum, with 6-month extensions. There seems to be no two-year visa in this category. Another category "treaty trader or treaty investor" has a two-year visa. None of the others do.

Can somebody please ask State and DHS some question about the visa process with this guy? That's where the problem started.

The visa process is the first tier for foreign nationals. Airport security is the second tier. Port-of-entry security is the third tier, but that's after a plane lands, and that might very well be too late.

Yes, I'm being a pest on this point.

Posted by: jpeckjr on December 28, 2009 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with the opinions expressed in the original post. Napolitano responded like a typical bureaucrat. The agency she heads messed up in several ways. Instead of being defensive, she should have owned up to the shortfall; indeed, taken responsibility for it. Finally, not even admitting that "mistakes were made" is also part of the scandal here. Napolitano has not served Obama well (or us). If she were fired, I wouldn't mind at all.

Posted by: sjw on December 28, 2009 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

This is how the system should work. Or, I guess how it used to work.

And to tomj, interesting turn of phrase, slapping her around just smacks of sexism. But there needs to be a system to be able to identify flights in the air etc. Or do you suppose it's just the random bs that Chertoff' boys threw out?

Posted by: Tom M on December 28, 2009 at 7:10 PM | PERMALINK

P.S. Have a look at Karen Tumulty on Time's web site (the blog Swampland): the transcript (with accompanying video) provided shows that Napolitano was claiming the system worked because, among other things, the passengers took on the would-be terrorist. This is lunacy of the first order. For a person with as much responsibility as she has to say what she said, it is unacceptable. And yet she continues to defend herself and her comment. Unbelievable.

Posted by: sjw on December 28, 2009 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

It seems screening was too lenient, but remember:
1. Passengers don't like really long waits etc. and there is a trade-off about safety v. convenience just like for the highways etc.
2. When BushCo was running things, some people got through (shoe bomber), and many were stopped for (by chain of influences) having been in anti-Bush rallies etc., name similar to someone bad (and it was hard to get cleared.) and so on.

Posted by: neil b. on December 28, 2009 at 7:43 PM | PERMALINK

Time, money and manpower needs to be focused more on fixing broken data systems and interagency/international lines of communication, and less on making millions of passengers jump through a gauntlet of BULLSHIT hoops that do NOTHING to prevent acts of terrorism.

I have yet to read about a airport security attendant identifying anything that prevented an actual terrorist attempt. It's usually done before they even reach the airport.

What we need is real international security and intelligence systems.

Posted by: bdop4 on December 28, 2009 at 8:09 PM | PERMALINK

"I can see why this was an awkward choice of words, but the reaction has been way over the top."

As the Homeland Security Secretary, this was by far one of the dumbest things she could have said and she deserves all the ribbing and hell she is getting. I can't wait to Saturday Night Live this weekend, this will be hilarious....and she deserves this. Her response was almost as weak and pitiful as Obama's late (wait until another one of my vacations is done) response. He took three days to respond and all he could come up with was a lame 6 minute blah, blah, blah heard it all before speech. What an idiot. When is Obama going to grow some balls and act like the leader of our country. I am so sorry I voted for this guy. He does not have the maturity, leadership skill and experience to pull this job off any better than the previous dirt bag Bush.

Posted by: middleclassandscrewed on December 28, 2009 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe tomj, sjq and sonic charmer could answer the question of how it is the responsibility of the DHS to prevent a terrorist from boarding an airplane in Amsterdam?

Posted by: tanstaafl on December 28, 2009 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

"What we need is real international security and intelligence systems."

We actually have that, it's called Interpol. I'm not really sure why we can't use the Interpol system to send warnings to airports. It seems to me that when England denied this man a visa renewal, they should have posted a warning on the Interpol system. And airport security should look out for people on Interpol watch lists. We don't need a new system here. We just need to use the system that's been around for decades. Interpol isn't perfect, but the system has caught plenty of terrorists, drug dealers, money launderers, and gun runners. And it's a system that governments already know how to deal with. I first talked about this idea on Sept 11, 2001, and since then, nobody has ever listened. Most of the time, I just end up having to explain what Interpol is.

Posted by: fostert on December 28, 2009 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Congratulations on that excellent piece of performance art, middlesclassandscrewed.

Wait! You mean you weren't parodying a mindlessly drooling right-wing troll?

Then maybe you would consider that the reports indicate Obama was intimately involved in crafting a response to the incident in the form of increased screening, more air marshalls on international flights and getting together with foreign police and intelligence services to track down any accomplices and allies of this bomber.

This, and not grandstanding public announcements, is the proper response to an incident in which, however much luck played a role, resulted in no loss of life or injuries to anyone except the would-be bomber.

Posted by: tansstaafl on December 28, 2009 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: Dody Gunawinata on December 28, 2009 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

I find myself in the minority here. The system did work; the suspect was unable to get a potent explosive or incendiary device on the plane, and was disabled by the last line of defense, his fellow passengers, in any case. Sure, it would have been better to catch him before that point, and we should try and find out if it would be cost effective to make changes that would have allowed that to happen, but when all's said and done, the system did work. You all just have a very narrow and ill-considered notion of what the system is.

Posted by: dob on December 28, 2009 at 9:12 PM | PERMALINK

"The system did work; the suspect was unable to get a potent explosive or incendiary device on the plane"

Hardly. PETN explosives have long been used in terrorism and they are extremely effective. The 80 grams he had was more that enough to take the plane down, as the FAA has demonstrated in their own tests (they concluded 50 grams was more than enough). And the chemical detonator is not unusual at all. He just didn't have the training to do the detonation process correctly (which is difficult with PETN). Had that been a Navy Seal with the same chemicals, we'd be talking about an exploded plane, not a failed attempt. Fortunately, humans need a lot of training and this guy didn't get it. But even without training, he might have gotten lucky anyway. Regardless, he did get a known and potent explosive on the plane. Interestingly, PETN, like nitroglycerin, is used to treat heart conditions, so it is readily available with a prescription. Get enough people to give you some of their pills, and you too can make a bomb. You just have to get the detonation right.

Posted by: fostert on December 28, 2009 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

By fair standards, she's not only proven herself capable and competent, but also the best secretary DHS has had in its relatively short history.

She hasn't gotten any press before this, so, can we ask: what _has_ she done? What makes her the best, or good, or whatever? This isn't a snark question, it's a genuine one. What are her accomplishments thus far?

Posted by: A DC Wonk on December 29, 2009 at 12:33 AM | PERMALINK

lori and kurk haskell tell a very interesting story about the boarding of the nigerian at schiphol airport.

here is a newspaper account


but kurt haskell got air on npr's atc today. a very interesting interview. of interest to me was learning that for 6 years he was an attorney for the irs. and that during the 2 hours the passengers were sequestered and interviewed by the fbi after landing in detroit, he told them this same story.  officially, the usg says that this nigerian had no accomplices.

i must admit, i stopped flying through schiphol in 2002. but from at least 1998-2002, it was the most security-conscious airport that i traversed. as i recall, security at schiphol from 1998[if not earlier] was managed by ex-israeli military/intell services personnel. as i recall, one could not move from one concourse to another, even as a transiting passenger, without having to produce a relevant boarding pass and a passport. i found this to be the case at heathrow as well.

so, let us consider the haskells' story. the alleged jihadi shows up at the gate in the company of an elegantly dressed older and taller man. who the haskells'  overhear trying to bully the gate agent to board the nigerian without a passport. the gate agent refuses and sends the pair to her manager.

somehow, the nigerian, with no passport, gets boarded. if haskells' overhearing is accurate[and i think it is], the nigerian is boarded without producing a passport.

several questions are raised -  according to the haskells, the tall elegant companion that they observed, overheard, did not board the aircraft. one must ask a question, how was this individual able to enter that concourse? you cannot access a concourse without a boarding pass and a passport. which also invites the question, how did the nigerian enter the concourse without a passport?

in my relations with spookdom, i would submit that the nigerian's companion was a "handler".

haskell identifies this "handler" as appearing to be an "indian"[i.e., from the subcontinent]. i interpret that to mean that the companion was of an olive complection. could have been an israeli. an employee/manager of the israeli-managed schiphol security operations. this would allow him to move, with his nigerian companion, throughout schiphol unquestioned, unstopped.

several weeks ago, i read an article in the nyt, i think, where an ex-cia officer predicted another terrorist event before the end of the year. was this that event?

another false flag operation?

another bit of terrorism orchestrated by israel and the usa?

if the haskells heard it accurately, and i think that they did, then i sure think so.

what will be interesting will be the disposition of the film record from all the security cameras. as i recall, schiphol was the first major international airport to be overwhelmingly cameraed. there should be film tracking every bit of the nigerian's transit through schiphol. through every security check-point. his "no passport" rendezvous with the gate agent. to his entry to the manager's office. to his eventual boarding.

what i heard from kurt haskell this afternoon was how the swarthy, elegantly dressed companion identified the nigerian as sudanese and informed the gate agent that sudanese had been allowed access to flying without papers routinely. makes one wonder if this is how israeli intelligence moves its agents around without any record of their transit. also makes me wonder how often it is that the airline industry succumbs to this fraud.

what really vouchsafed haskell's story for me was when he was asked if anyone heard what he heard, saw what he saw. his response, "no one else was paying attention".

and that has been my experience when flying. i am always paying attention. i do not go through life as if in a dream state. most do, however.

finishing up, haskell has reported a reality. watch how his report goes down the rabbit hole, lubricated by the mossad operatives that are running the usa. it should never be forgotten that israeli firms were running[as i recall] security at bos, dia, on that day in september, 2001.

was it an israeli false-flag bit of catastrophic homicide that misfired? i think so.

especially since this nigerian was flying one-way with a ticket paid for in cash. in 2002, that would have been a red flag in schiphol for special handling[i.e., special interrogation and strip searching].  

was it the mental vacancies of christmas amongst the security personnel? or was it the intercession of the "handler".

my vote is on the israeli intell agent that lubricated the nigerians transit of schiphol.

finally, do you think that the usg will now begin to investigate the myriad of israeli intell operatives that have been subverting the interests of the usa for decades?

Posted by: albertchampion on December 29, 2009 at 2:46 AM | PERMALINK

As head of the Senate HSC, perhaps Lieberman should spend more time on the hard work of oversight ensuring the proper functioning of that department and less on grandstanding and attention-seeking?

If this incident was caused by dysfunctionality as HS, then Lieberman is partially responsible.

Posted by: bob h on December 29, 2009 at 7:07 AM | PERMALINK

There's plenty of blame to paint all those responsible for this occurence of an "almosta" plane bombing.
Years after 911 we have oozed forward some in preventing terrorist action against us. Now I suppose the feds will hire a few thousand to sit on the problem until something happens.


Posted by: rocketpedaler on December 30, 2009 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

I've been looking all over for this!


Posted by: LORRI on January 2, 2010 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

I cannot believe this will work!

Posted by: ρουλέτα on January 10, 2010 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

Straight to the point, i love it. Dont let anyone stop us bloggers.

Posted by: How to Get Backlinks on April 9, 2011 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK
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