Politics of National Security: Flight 253 Terror Plot Increases Partisan Bickering

Blame game between Republicans and Democrats takes center stage.

Dec. 29, 2009— -- The politics of national security is taking center stage as Republicans and Democrats engage in a blame game over U.S. security efforts after the botched Christmas Day terror plot.

Some Democrats say Republican leaders have impeded national security interests by voting against the expansion of funding for the Transportation Security Administration and holding up the nomination of President Obama's TSA director. Some Republicans say Democrats are too preoccupied with other issues, such as health care and have not done enough on national security.

At the center of the boiling debate is Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republican senator from South Carolina.

Obama nominated former FBI agent and police detective Erroll Southers as TSA head in September, eight months after the new administration took over. But when the nomination was sent to the full Senate to be confirmed in November, DeMint put the nomination on hold amid concerns that Southers would allow TSA screeners to unionize.

White House officials have downplayed concerns about the lack of a permanent TSA director, with National Security Council chief of staff Dennis McDonough saying the administration has full confidence in acting director Gale Rossides. Yet some Democrats have seized on DeMint's move.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Reid intends to schedule a vote to break the hold when the Senate returns in January.

"We have been trying to confirm Mr. Southers since he cleared committee, including at the end of this session," Manley said in a statement to ABC News. "Sadly the Republican obstructionism of just one person, Sen. DeMint, prevented TSA from having the leadership in place that the organization deserves."

But DeMint's office says Democrats have only themselves to blame for not having a TSA administrator in place.

"President Obama did not make this a priority, waiting 243 days in office before making a nomination and Harry Reid has been too busy trading earmarks for votes on health care to schedule debate on the nominee," spokesman Wesley Denton said in a written statement to ABC News, a claim that Reid's office denies.

DeMint himself used the opportunity to argue against the unionization of TSA employees, saying that the agency is able to make quick decisions in the event of a terror incident because its employees are not unionized.

"Many Americans aren't aware that the president's nominee to lead the TSA appears ready to give union bosses the power to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports," DeMint said. "I hope this incident will lead the president to rethink this policy and put the interests of American travelers ahead of organized labor."

Former Bush administration national security official Gordon Johndroe said today Republicans should "move on beyond the union issues" being used by DeMint to block an up-or-down vote on Southers.

"We've got to move on beyond the union issues; they will get worked out, it's an issue that the Department of Homeland Security has been working out since it was created six years ago," Johndroe said today on "Top Line," adding that he thinks DeMint's parliamentary maneuver is opening up Republicans a "little bit" to criticism from Democrats.

The Politics of National Security

TSA was created after 9/11 as part of the Department of Homeland Security. It has faced criticism from both Democrats and Republicans alike, most recently after a TSA screening manual for employees was posted online.

Experts are mixed on how the lack of a permanent director affects the agency. Some say that while terror plots such as the one last week are difficult to stop, having an agency head in place would make a difference.

"I think that it is a mistake that Kip Hawley hasn't been replaced. He was a pretty smart guy," said Peter Goelz, a former director of the National Transportation Safety Board and currently senior vice president at O'Neill and Associates. "Any time you have an agency without political leadership, it drifts. New initiatives not put in play, reviews of old initiatives are not completed, it tends to drift."

But the TSA cannot entirely be blamed for the incident on Friday, when 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Detroit-bound plane strapped with explosives and tried to blow up the jetliner as it was about to land.

"It is extraordinarily difficult to stop dedicated suicide bombers from carrying out their mission," Goelz said.

Experts say men such as Abdulmutallab, who live seemingly normal lives, are hard to identify and target.

"This is the truly disturbing part," ABC News consultant and former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke said on "Good Morning America" Monday. "They are normal one day and then after a few weeks of watching the Internet and watching al Qaeda videotapes on the Internet, they become radicalized. They reach out in the real world for al Qaeda connections. They get trained.

"It's very hard to see these self-initiating terrorists become terrorists, very hard for U.S. intelligence to pick them up," Clarke added.

Terror plots and attacks against the United States in the past have tended to unite the two parties, but last Friday's foiled plan has done the opposite.

In addition to blaming DeMint for delaying Southers' nomination, some Democrats have singled out Republicans for voting against a funding measure in the 2010 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, which would provide additional funds to TSA for security systems.

Under the measure, the TSA would get more than $4 million for screening operations, of which $1.1 million would be for explosives detection systems, $855,964,000 for aviation security direction and enforcement and $778,300,000 for the purchase and installation of these systems. The measure also included $1.2 million for developing and enhancing research and training capabilities for TSA "improvised explosive recognition training."

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was among those who voted against the measure. When reached for comment, his office would only say in a statement, "Boehner voted against the House Democratic Leadership's irresponsible efforts to import terrorists into the United States from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Frankly, the attack on Christmas Day is another reminder that we need a real plan to protect America from the terrorist threat. Transparently partisan attempts to shift blame don't make the American people any safer."

Some Republicans are pointing the finger at Sen. Chris Dodd amid reports that the Connecticut senator offered an amendment to reduce TSA funding for "aviation security" by $4.5 million for grants for firefighters, but at the time of the proposal, there was no objection by Republicans.

Sen. Dodd proposed providing $10 million to fund firefighters' equipment, an amendment in the Homeland Security appropriations bill that was passed with unanimous consent and no objection from Republicans at the time.

Partisanship Increases After Terror Plot

The partisan bickering has even spilled into local politics. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican planning a gubernatorial campaign, sent out a fundraising solicitation discussing Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and bashing the Obama administration's handling of the issue.

"Unfortunately, as the Democrat party drifts further and further to the left, their leaders are making decisions that should frighten us all. Since President Obama took office, he and his left-wing cronies have taken steps to undermine the work of our brave men and women who work tirelessly to keep us safe," the e-mail states. "Barack Obama's policies may impress the 'Blame America First' crowd at home and his thousands of fans overseas, but they sure don't do anything to protect our families in Michigan or the rest of America. ... I will be a governor who fights, every day, to keep Michigan safe."

One of Hoekstra's GOP rivals for the gubernatorial nomination, businessman Rick Snyder, took issue with the e-mail and complained that the congressman's decision to use Flight 253 as an opportunity to raise money for his political campaign represents Hoekstra's "Washington style of politics," which Snyder says is not needed in Lansing [the state capital].

"It is extremely disappointing that the Congressman would use a potentially tragic incident to raise money for his political campaign. In these troubling times, words can't describe how sad it is to see an attempt to politically capitalize on a failed terrorist attack just three days after it happened," Snyder's communications director Jake Suski said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Congressman Hoekstra's Washington style of politics as usual isn't the answer to our lack of leadership in Lansing."

Democrats also panned Hoekstra's move.

"I think this is the same gentleman, people need to know, that had a press conference and said we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Democratic Strategic James Carville said on "GMA" today. "I think this man has some sort of intellectual challenges."

The Democratic National Committee used Hoekstra's fundraising solicitation to paint the GOP as being interested in playing "politics" with national security.

"It was shameful that Republicans like Mr. Hoekstra would attempt to play politics with our national security at all, but raising money off it is beyond the pale," DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan said in a statement. "Republicans are playing politics with issues of national security and terrorism, and that they would use this incident as an opportunity to fan partisan flames and raise money for political campaigns tells you all you need to know about how far the Republican party has fallen and how out of step with the American people they have become."

ABC News' Teddy Davis contributed to this report.