- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
It was a relief to see Barack Obama take responsibility for the "systemic failure" to protect the American people. It is surprising, however, to see that be the story lead in so much of the media coverage. After all, running the government is the president’s responsibility as a simple matter of fact. And he accepted responsibility only after two weeks of politically costly bungling. The president accepted responsibility only because the American people had already assigned it to him.
The president’s problem is that the lack of urgency about terrorist threats described in the administration’s report on the Christmas attack sounds an awful lot like the attitudes that prevailed before 9/11. Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, members of the 9/11 commission, have both said so. It is reasonable for Americans to ask why, after all the expense and experience of the past eight years, our government isn’t able to do better.
In truth, our government does terrifically well at protecting us. High threat levels have been the norm for years now, and they have prevented another attack succeeding. The good men and women of the Department of Homeland Security and our intelligence community have to be right all day every day, which is a monumental burden, and the administration is coming late to showing their appreciation for all that is done right.
Clearly, the National Counterterrorism Center didn’t put the pieces together fast enough in this case. That will happen; it’s the nature of intelligence work that you seldom have complete information. But this is where the administration’s "command climate" is so damaging. Attorney General Eric Holder’s prosecutorial attitudes toward the people who have to make difficult daily choices in order to protect us will make them less likely to run risks. They need to know they are operating in an environment where the leadership appreciates that the nature of their work means they will sometimes be wrong. They will make a bad choice, or a good choice will go bad. They deserve the benefit of the doubt from us, given how difficult and dangerous is what they do to protect us.
Another element of the command climate is the president’s own attitude. Candidate and President Obama, along with Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism John Brennan, have always prided themselves on "putting terrorism back into proper perspective" — by which they mean less an organizing priority than it had been in the Bush administration. Brennan has been influential in getting the administration to adopt a stance that doesn’t "reward" terrorists with attention and costly reactions. And there is some merit to that line of thought.
But they lost the public confidence when Secretary Napolitano, Robert Gibbs, and John Brennan all claimed "the system worked." The traveling public doesn’t consider passengers preventing a terrorist attack as it’s occurring to be the system working. Brennan’s coolness may be of a kind with the president’s, but it isn’t of a kind with the traveling public’s, which finally precipitated the volte face from the White House. National security advisor Jim Jones chose an unfortunate metaphor for the administration when he said the two recent attacks were strike one and strike two, but he has the political calculus right.
That Brennan couldn’t understand the political dynamic is one more reason to be concerned about him overseeing the review of the terrorist watch lists and determining whether NCTC is functioning properly. John Brennan set them up, so he’s hardly impartial. He bills himself as apolitical, but he campaigned for President Obama.
Janet Napolitano sounded much closer to the mark in her press statement following the president. She made a persuasive case for layered security, and seems more committed to further extending the perimeter of our defenses through international cooperation. This shouldn’t have required a near-miss terrorist attack to concentrate the administration’s attention. They should have capitalized on the President’s international popularity to wring concessions on data sharing from our European allies, at a bare minimum, early on.
Congress has slated numerous hearings, in the Homeland Security Committees in both the House and Senate, and in the Senate Committee on Intelligence, that should provide insight into why only now the administration is taking this threat as seriously as the rest of the country. Unfortunately for the president, taking responsibility for the failure is only the start, not the end, of this debate.
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