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Goldberg: Better Scapegoats Than Napolitano

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Goldberg: Better Scapegoats Than Napolitano

National Security

Goldberg: Better Scapegoats Than Napolitano

Goldberg: Better Scapegoats Than Napolitano

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Read Jeffrey Goldberg's Piece For The Atlantic, "In Defense Of Janet Napolitano"

Since the botched bomb attack on Flight 253, critics have blamed Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano. They accuse her of flip-flopping. Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, says there are better scapegoats out there.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A Republican senator blocking President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration says Democrats are trying to rush a vote on the nominee. South Carolina's Jim DeMint has placed a hold on the nomination of former FBI agent Erroll Southers because of fears the nominee would let TSA screeners join a labor union.

The Netherlands also will begin immediately screening or using full body scanners for flights heading to the U.S. from Amsterdam's major international airport. The move follows the failed attempt to blow up an airliner bound from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day. Previously, both the EU and the United States had limited uses of those screeners over privacy concerns.

Since that botched bomb attack, critics from the left and right have pounced on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. They cite her initial statements that the system worked, that crew and passengers took appropriate action, that measures to alert other international flights in the air and security officials at airports went ahead smoothly. A day later, she conceded the system had failed miserably.

Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic argues that while that first statement was exceedingly stupid, there are better scapegoats out there than Janet Napolitano. So if you have questions about screening systems and watch lists and who should be held accountable for what President Obama described yesterday as a systemic failure, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And Jeffrey Goldberg joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Thank you.

CONAN: Why leave Janet Napolitano alone? She's been secretary of this agency for almost a year.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Almost a year, right. You know, there are two separate questions. One is who to blame. And the other question, which is the larger question, is why do we insist on pursuing this blame game? Why do we insist on finding a scapegoat? There's a very interesting different way that it's done in Israel. I had a very interesting conversation with George Tenet once, who of course got it in the neck for the Iraq War intelligence.

And he told me that the Israelis - his Israeli counterparts tell him when there's a failure in the system, the desire is not to find someone to fire. The desire is simply to analyze the failure and figure out better ways to do this. I would argue that with Napolitano and with obviously the other people who were somewhat to blame or somewhat culpable in this, the director of national intelligence, the State Department, for instance, that instead of figuring out who we can fire, we can figure out - spend our effort, spend our time looking at what went wrong, trying to examine the systems.

Janet Napolitano's been in the job for 11 months. Do we really want to get rid of someone who is a competent person, who was recently confirmed by the Senate because she was a competent person and start somebody new in that job every time there's a failure in the system? It doesn't make sense to me.

CONAN: Well, shouldn't somebody be held accountable for what has been, you know, was a near-tragedy?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Absolutely be held accountable. But I'm saying that from a practical perspective, do you want to disrupt the systems every time a mistake occurs? And I think there's almost a cognitive problem here. The problem is that the government, our government has told us for years that it can stop all terrorism. The assumption that we go into - the assumption that we carry with us into these arguments is, terrorism can be stopped. All terrorism can be stopped. So therefore, if it's not stopped, someone must be at fault.

And I think what the president needs to do - I think what we as a society need to do is simply acknowledge the fact that most terrorists will be stopped, some won't. And every time that a terrorist isn't stopped, although this one was stopped ultimately by the best defense we have which is passengers.

CONAN: And incompetence, apparently.

Mr. GOLDBERG: And - yes. And the saving grace of our war on terror, if you will, is that most terrorists aren't very good at terrorism. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 plot, was a competent terrorist. Most aren't. And that's one blessing that we have. But I go back to the central point which is, are we going to disrupt the system and look for a scapegoat every time there's a failure in the process? Spend so much time retraining people and getting other people to become future scapegoats, or are we going to let them try to learn from their mistakes and move forward?

CONAN: We are learning today that a man with a very similar device, if not an identical device, was in fact stopped as he attempted to go through the screening process at the airport in Mogadishu...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Of all places.

CONAN: ...in Somalia, which suggests that either the intelligence or the screening was better in Mogadishu than it was in Amsterdam.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, my impression is that the screenings process in Mogadishu was less polite, let's say, than the screening process in Amsterdam or any American airport. And of course, this goes to - another central point which is, we can make sure that people aren't getting on planes with bombs. We could install prison-style searches in all of our airports. We could make people strip down to their drawers or pass their drawers, as the case may be.

I don't know what happened in Mogadishu. I read the same story you did and it struck me that perhaps a little less politesse was used in the Mogadishu situation than we as Americans would expect in our own airports.

CONAN: There's another point, and you say we shouldn't rush to blame. Well, after 9/11 which, of course, happened a shorter time...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.

CONAN: ...into the Bush administration than this happened in the Obama administration...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.

CONAN: ...Democrats were sure ready to jump and blame the Bush administration...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...for failing to connect the dots.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. Well, you know, we always have this problem with dots. There's another separate issue here which is that before 9/11 we didn't connect the dots. Then with the Iraq War intelligence, we connected dots that weren't there or connected too many dots. We have a problem with calibrating how we connect the dots. And my argument - and this is not to excuse poor behavior on the part of the intelligence agencies, on the part of Homeland Security, on the part of TSA - but the problem is that it's very, very had to do.

Every day across this globe in a thousand different places, million young men wake up thinking of ways to blow up things in America. This is the problem. And the systems sometimes work, often they don't. I think, particularly on airline security in the TSA arena, we have very, very stupid things done all the time, which are both...

CONAN: Which you - some of which you have documented.

Mr. GOLDBERG: And I've written about those in The Atlantic. It's a ridiculous system that we have. It's useless. Obviously, it wouldn't have stopped this guy even if he had boarded a plane in America. But what we have a lot of problems obviously. And the problems go much deeper than which politician has been installed as the secretary of Homeland Security at any given moment.

CONAN: There is also the question, and we're hearing again that there was one intelligence agency - we're not quite sure which, but you think probably the NSA - overheard chatter about...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.

CONAN: ... al-Qaida in...

Mr. GOLDBERG: The Nigerian.

CONAN: ...the Arabian Peninsula, sending a Nigerian to make an attack and that was not connected to the CIA's interview of his father in Lagos.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. Right. Right. Well, A, there are a lot of Nigerians. So - what are we going to start doing, pulling all Nigerians off for secondary screening? I think we're going to have some civil liberties issues. But put that aside, coming back to the direct issue of Janet Napolitano, Janet Napolitano's mistake, I think, was to go on television without all the information. It's sort of like a hot potato when she caught the potato and went on TV and said the systems work.

This seems to be more of a catastrophic failure in the intelligence community. And this is the - the shame of this moment is that if there was one thing we were supposed to do after 9/11 - put aside Iraq, put aside Afghanistan, put aside Pakistan - there's one thing that was supposed to be fixed. It was that that if someone in the government learned of a possible terrorist threat, he was supposed to tell everybody else who's relevant in the government. And that's what seems to have failed. That, by the way, is not under the control of the Department of Homeland Security. That's the director of National Intelligence who has so far escaped most of this kind of scapegoating exercise.

CONAN: Well, one thing she did say: well, when I said the systems work I was referring to, we alerted all the other flights in the air...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.

CONAN: ...that something was going on because we're afraid of multiple kinds of attacks as indeed happened on 9/11.

Mr. GOLDBERG: A typical al-Qaida attack, yeah.

CONAN: And, yet today, we hear that, indeed, flights from the Pacific, at least some, and flights from the Caribbean were not informed, that people on domestic flights were not informed.

Mr. GOLDBERG: No one is arguing that the system is working well. And, you know, I really think that in a way - you know, there's a subtle expression, you know, God shines on America because we make so many mistakes. I think that this was in a way a lucky break, another lucky break in a way that the guy's underpants didn't explode as they were supposed to and...

CONAN: And like Richard Reid could not ignite the fuse on his shoe bomb.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Richard Reid could ignite the fuse. One of the things we're luckiest - one of our greatest assets is - and really, the only thing that has worked well in the post-9/11 aviation safety issue is that passengers now are alert to the fact that hijackers don't want to take the plane to Cuba. They want to blow it up and so they react accordingly. And it's an amazing thing, but our best defense, in this case, was not the CIA, not the TSA, not the National Counterterrorism Center. It was a Dutch filmmaker.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, who has written extensively on air traffic safety and screening techniques. He's here in Studio 3A. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And Percy(ph) is on the line calling from Dayton.

PERCY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PERCY: I'm really just curious as to why we are trying to blame somebody in the Obama administration when this guy got on the plane in another country. Shouldn't somebody be held accountable over there?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, yes. I mean, it's true that there was a failure in Nigeria. There was a failure in the Netherlands. This is an American airline, and the American airlines obviously work with Homeland Security to prevent people from getting on these planes. The no-fly list doesn't just mean people can't get on a plane between New York and Los Angeles. It's supposed to work so that no one can get on a plane anywhere in the world and come into America. So there's plenty of blame to go around. The system failed every point.

CONAN: This gentleman also had a multiple entry visa into the United States. And the question being was that a good idea, especially after, again, the CIA had been warned that he might be a threat?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. By the way, I'm very impressed with Hillary Clinton's ability to stay out of this so far. But it was her State Department that, of course, issued this multiple entry visas. So...

CONAN: And maybe if the CIA had told them that there was a problem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...they might have taken another look at it.

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's amazing how broad this problem goes, just broader than Janet Napolitano.

CONAN: Percy, thanks very much for the call. There's also the question of these screeners, these whole-body imagers.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: And, again, there had been privacy concerns raised by the EU and in this country as well. An overwhelming majority in Congress approved a nonbinding resolution that would have severely limited their use.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right. Well, you know, this is the problem of calibration. Again, how far do you go? If this plane had, God forbid, blown up, we would be seeing a rush of these machines. I have questions about whether they even work. And there's one - there are many maddening aspects of this. One maddening aspect of this today is that the Dutch have announced that they're putting in these machines immediately for all flights that go to America. We always fight the last war. Why would anybody with half a brain in al-Qaida send the next underpants bomber or shoe bomber or whatever bomber through Amsterdam? The whole - we're always one step behind.

CONAN: That's the last place they'd expect it.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. Yes, you could psych yourself out endlessly, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. These machines should work. There are huge privacy issues. Particularly by the way, with more religiously modest groups, including Muslims by the way, who are going to object strenuously to having their wives, for instance, put through these machines. I mean this is going to cause cultural problems. This is going to cause political problems. And it might not even work.

CONAN: And they're expensive too.

Mr. GOLDBERG: And they're very expensive.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Dickie(ph). Dickie, calling from Portland.

DICKIE (Caller): Hey. Thanks for having me on the call.

CONAN: Sure.

DICKIE: My personal opinion, I think that Janet should be held culpable for this. Not so much because the lack of planning or any other scenario in that case and not because of her incompetency or lack of planning in this situation, but more because, like your guest just mentioned, our knee-jerk reactions that we've seen to repeat over and over and over again every time something comes up: the mixing of the fluids in the bathroom negated as down to three ounces of liquids when, you know, on business travel. It just (unintelligible) all were doing is causing problems for the travelers. We're not protecting anything with these little tiny steps, or these knee-jerk reactions and the same...

CONAN: Well, it's also been pointed out that we're all required to take our shoes off and put them through the X-ray machine which can't detect explosives.

DICKIE: Exactly.

CONAN: If the soles of his shoes were made of PETN, it wouldn't be able to tell.

DICKIE: Right.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, the key phrase here is security theater. What you experience at the airport is not security, it's theater. It's a performance designed to make you feel that the government is doing something to protect...

CONAN: It's a $40 billion show.

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's bigger than "Phantom of the Opera." I mean this is - this costs a lot of money to do, and it really doesn't work. I don't blame Janet Napolitano for most of the events of the last few days. What I blame her for - and this goes - this is a bipartisan complaint obviously - goes back to the Bush administration which invented the TSA - is that they don't level with us. They don't say, you know what, we have a serious problem here. We cannot prevent things from getting on the planes, you know, and we simply cannot.

What they - one of the things they don't tell you is that the thousands of people who work in the airports are not screened at all. The guy who delivers the buns to McDonald's behind the gate, the guy who's running the fuel trucks, these are not screened. So it's a kind of a farce.

And the problem here - and this is what I would hope Janet Napolitano would do - is say, look, we can go to a different system. We can go to an invasive system like the Israelis for instance have, where every passenger interviewed before he gets on a plane. And we might not have to check your underwear then or your shoes then, but you're not going to like this from a civil liberties perspective. But that's an effective way of doing this. And right now, we can't promise that people aren't going to get on the planes with knives or explosives or even guns sometimes.

CONAN: Dickie, thanks for the call. Let's see if we go next to Mark(ph). And Mark's with us from Tucson.

MARK (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Hi.

MARK: I'm a tour director who runs tours in the Mid-East and in South America and in Europe. So I have a real vested interest in this. Because I've - I fly all the time. I was on, like, 100 flights last year. And my thinking is, look at how many million passenger flights were done safely. And this is one instance. So if you really feel the need to find somebody culpable, okay, do it. But you don't get anybody who's better than Janet Napolitano in that position. And I think what it gets said about let's solve the problem. That's what we need to do and get the people who know what they're doing. You know, okay, I made a mistake, great. I know now how to fix it. I think that's very smart attitude to take.

CONAN: Is that likely to be the outcome here do you think, Jeffrey Goldberg?

Mr. GOLDBERG: You live in Washington as I do. I don't think that's going to be the outcome. I think this is turning into a partisan sniping battle, I think, slotting into regular narrative: Are the Democrats soft on terrorism? Are the Republicans too harsh on civil liberties? We're getting back into the usual arid, sterile sort of debates that we have. And what I'm hoping for - hoping against hope - is that we can have a serious discussion about the underlying truths of this long battle with terror and what's going to be expected of us and what we have to expect ourselves, which is that terrorism sometimes is going to work.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the phone call. And, of course, those serious and, I'm sure, completely dispassionate discussions will happen, I guess, next in congressional hearings.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, no doubt, where, of course, you know, everyone is perfect. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Nobody would want to grandstand there.

Mr. GOLDBERG: No. No.

CONAN: Jeffery Goldberg, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And have a happy new year.

Mr. GOLDBERG: You too.

CONAN: Jeffry Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Nice enough to join us here today in Studio 3A.

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