Terror Attempt a Referendum on Obama Security Policy?

Critics call attempted bombing a red flag on Obama's security policies.

December 30, 2009, 5:44 PM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31, 2009— -- Few dispute that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 represents a major breach of U.S. security and intelligence systems. But assigning blame for the thwarted Christmas Day attack depends on whom you ask in the highly polarized political climate.

Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich laid blame for the Dec. 25 incident at the feet of Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on "Good Morning America" today, saying "there's a fundamental mismatch between the dangers we face and this administration's inability ... to confront how difficult this war is."

Gingrich, who insists the United States is "in a war situation," criticized the Obama administration's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, repatriate some detainees to Yemen and try others in U.S. criminal courts. "This is just not competent," he said.

But the former speaker also acknowledged that problems of miscommunication between intelligence agencies and an inability to maintain vigilance in the face of persistent threats are not limited to the Obama administration.

"The last administration underestimated how hard this war was going to be," he said. "This administration is underestimating how hard this war is going to be. The American people should demand that we are much more aggressive in seeking data and that we are much more aggressive in stopping people."

Gingrich had previously called for Napolitano's resignation after she initially defended her agency's handling of the terrorist attempt by saying "the system worked."

"I think that we need a secretary of homeland security who understands that this is a systems problem and her first response was totally wrong," Gingrich told ABC News Wednesday.

Napolitano has since retreated from her early remarks, admitting that the system put in place to prevent the attempted bombing clearly fell short. President Obama echoed that sentiment Tuesday, casting a wide net of blame by attributing the event to a "systemic failure."

Lee Hamilton, co-author of the 9/11 Commission report that issued recommendations for improving U.S. counterterrorism efforts, told ABC News the number of red flags missed by that system is unacceptable given the "very large sums" of money spent since 2001.

"[Abdulmutallab] boarded a plane. He paid cash, that's a danger signal," Hamilton said. "He didn't have any luggage, that's another danger signal. His father had contacted the embassy and said my son has been radicalized, that's a danger signal. ? What did not happen was these bits of information were not put in one place, analyzed and then acted upon."

Preliminary findings of a review of the terrorist watch list and of air travel screening protocols are expected to be submitted to Obama today.

Still, Republicans have leapt on the incident as a referendum on Obama's entire national security record, some going so far as to blame the president himself for the Christmas Day bombing attempt.

Gingrich: Obama Policies Part of Problem

Gingrich told ABC News that "the buck has to stop with the president," saying that the Obama administration's policies are at least partly to blame.

"The president should have changed the entire orientation of this administration away from worrying about the rights of terrorists towards worrying about the safety of Americans," Gingrich said. "That means, you don't release people from Guantanamo, you don't have civilian trials in New York, you have the CIA not the FBI interrogate terrorists, it means you set up new ground rules for monitoring and blocking people who are engaged with terrorists organizations."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been equally critical of Obama, saying that the president is pretending the country is not at war, which "makes us less safe."

The White House dismisses the notion that Obama fails to understand that the country is at war.

"This president is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote on the White House blog. "Unlike the last administration, we are not at war with a tactic ("terrorism"), we are at war with something that is tangible: al Qaeda and its violent extremist allies. And we will prosecute that war as long as the American people are endangered."

Whether Republican attacks will gain political traction remains to be seen but some experts say there will almost certainly be fallout.

"Clearly, this has not been a well-managed event. This is a serious thing," former National Transportation Safety Board director Peter Goelz told ABC News. "This is a test for the administration...The question is, does this administration have the guts to sit there and say, 'all right, somebody's accountable.'"

But which heads might roll -- if any at all -- is not a foregone conclusion because intelligence gathering and "connecting the dots" is widely known to be a tricky business that has snagged administrations of both parties.

"People are trying to make it into a political error," said Leslie H. Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. "No more one person [is to blame] in this instance than in the Richard Reid case of several years ago. I don't remember people clamoring for the head of Michael Chertoff, who was in charge of Homeland Security, or the CIA director."

"Mistakes were made in the Bush administration and they were remade by these people," Gelb said.

Will 'Blame Game' Make Us Safer?

Experts say it's natural to want to find a scapegoat for a security breach of this magnitude but whether that will improve safety is uncertain.

"Whenever one of these incidents occur, one can always find, looking in retrospect, things that should have been done better or weren't done at all," former CIA officer and professor of security studies at Georgetown University Paul Pillar told ABC News. "The main thing we have to remember is that in real time, the things security officials are looking at are nothing but needles in a haystack."

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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