Shadow Government

Someone’s head should roll, but whose?

By Peter Feaver President Obama’s announcement that, in his view, there was a "systemic failure" that almost enabled al Qaeda to make its long-sought and long-denied follow-up strike on U.S. soil has got me reconsidering my view that it is premature to fire Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano. Obama’s statement, fueled by fresh revelations of how ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

By Peter Feaver

President Obama’s announcement that, in his view, there was a "systemic failure" that almost enabled al Qaeda to make its long-sought and long-denied follow-up strike on U.S. soil has got me reconsidering my view that it is premature to fire Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano.

Obama’s statement, fueled by fresh revelations of how warnings went unheeded, is an abrupt reversal from the administration’s original stance which peddled the view that the abortive terrorist attack was an indication that the system had worked well. Coupled with Obama’s vague warning that there would be "accountability at every level" it now looks increasingly likely that the administration’s missteps amount to firing offenses for at least some. But for whom and when?

Pending fresh revelations, I will stick to my view that we don’t know enough yet to determine the level and degree of administration failure and thus the proper type of accountability. We need the oversight hearings first. We do know enough, however, to know that the hearings must be an absolute top and urgent priority. We should demand that the Obama administration cooperate with those hearings and not stone-wall, as some have claimed they are doing. And we do know a bit more about lines of inquiry for those hearings.

Beyond my initial suggestion that the hearings focus on the impact, if any, of the Obama’s administration’s effort to replace the "war" mind-set with a "law enforcement" mind-set throughout the counter-terrorism bureaucracy, I would add one more: are the failures and missteps that almost led to catastrophe on Christmas day partially a result of the intense feuding between the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence that has characterized the Obama tenure from the start? That charge is leveled in the Post story and it is not wildly implausible. Certainly experienced insiders have been warning of just such a possibility: that the cumulative effect of the numerous steps Obama has taken and not taken — for instance, the decision to pursue what Vice President Cheney has called a politically motivated investigation of CIA counter-terror activities during the early Bush years, or the failure to resolve turf fights between the Director of the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence — would yield excessive caution and breakdowns in interagency coordination on operational matters. Cheney’s warning looks prescient in light of recent reporting.

But let’s acknowledge that the picture is still unclear and the reporting still based on fragmentary evidence and anonymous quotes from insiders who may have their own self-protection incentives to distort the picture. All the more reason to get key administration officials to testify on the record and under oath. What they have to say may simply underscore the difficulty of providing adequate security in an age of globalization and transnational terrorist networks, or it may very well amount to a strong repudiation of some key aspects of Obama’s approach to the terrorist threat. If it is the latter, then President Obama should acknowledge this forthrightly and take whatever steps are necessary, changing policy and perhaps personnel.

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