'Shop Talk': Security Blunders Should Lead To Someone's Firing

Host Michel Martin listens in as freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sports reporter Pablo Torre and NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin give their take on the latest events to make news. This week, the men discuss President Obama's recent acknowledgment of a breakdown in systems charged with keeping the nation safe. As a kicker, the men weigh in on the troubles surrounding all-star basketball player Gilbert Arenas, who recently admitted to bringing multiple handguns into his team locker room.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, they won the game, thank the Lord - it's a fairly common thing to hear from many athletes these days who believe God should get the glory. But what about the players and fans who don't want to hear about an athlete's faith, on or off the field? Can they all get along? We'll talk about it. It's our weekly Faith Matters conversation, and that's coming up.

But first, there was so much to talk about on the news front this week, we decided an early visit to the Barbershop was in order. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, and NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows. Welcome to the shop.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Blogger, themuslimguy.com): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Hey.

KEN RUDIN: Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: So hey, President Obama told the nation yesterday that he accepts personal responsibility for the government's failure to detect an attempt to blow up a U.S. airplane on Christmas day, Michel.

MARTIN: Yeah, he called them systemic failures. And the president's remarks came late afternoon yesterday, after the White House released a report on how this Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose name was on this no-fly list, was actually able to board the transatlantic flight. It was a very quick turnaround on a report like this. I just want to play a short clip of what the president had to say, in case people missed it.

President BARACK OBAMA: I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer for ultimately, the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know, A-train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: There was a section of the president's statement, where he brought up Muslims and al-Qaida. Now, you're the muslimguy.com.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You could say that, you could say that.

Mr. IZRAEL: Did you feel it was necessary for President Obama to bring up the Muslim world in the speech about security breakdowns, really?

MARTIN: Before you answer, do you want to hear exactly what the president said?

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: That section of the speech. OK, I'll play that for you, too. Here it is.

Pres. OBAMA: We know that the vast majority of Muslims reject al-Qaida, but it is clear that al-Qaida increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations, not just in the Middle East but in Africa and other places to do their bidding. That's why I have directed my national security team to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits. And that's why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al-Qaida offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death, including the murder of fellow Muslims, while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress.

MARTIN: Here you go.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, A-train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, there was a recent report that came out from West Point Academy, which showed that in the last six years, 85 to 98 percent of al-Qaida's victims have been Muslims. And so, you know, there needs to be no lecture to Muslims about the devastating impact of al-Qaida, you know, and their treacherous reach.

And so, you know, it's interesting, especially because of the fact that during the presidential campaign, President Obama didn't come within 12 feet of an American Muslim mosque because the whisper campaigns of him being some sort of crypto-Muslim. And so, you know, it's interesting when we're talking about a systemic failure of government agencies to, you know, not be able to connect the dots between Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's name being popped up on a terrorist database to moving him to the no-fly or the selectee list. And so, it was interesting for me, you know, that he brought that up. But I think he was also trying to highlight the fact that, you know, with both his speeches in Cairo and Ankara, Turkey, to the Muslim world, the outreach that he has done, which was, you know, systemically different than the George Bush administration.

MARTIN: What's your bottom line? Do you think it was a legitimate comment or not?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I don't think that it was a legitimate comment in the context of the speech yesterday, which really focused on the intelligence failures of the U.S. government. I think that - to many Muslims, including myself, it was slightly condescending in the sense that, you know, like I said, 98 percent of al-Qaida's victims are Muslims and so, you know, we don't really need a lecture in terms of, you know, the devastating impact that al-Qaida has. I think he was also trying to point out the fact that, you know, this guy and other people are, you know, lone wolves and do not represent the plurality of Muslims worldwide.

MARTIN: Ken?

RUDIN: I think...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Go ahead, sir.

RUDIN: I was just going to say I think one of the reasons that President Obama specifically addressed Muslims - because there was a lot of controversy over the countries that are on the so-called...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right

RUDIN: ...no-fly list...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

RUDIN: ...the ones that will have extra special security at the airports, and they just so happen to be Muslim country -

Mr. IZRAEL: Except for Cuba

RUDIN: You never know about Cuba, you know, al-Qaida's big in Cuba lately. So, I kind of think that that was perhaps a part of the reason why he brought that up.

Mr. IZRAEL: It's a good point.

MARTIN: What about the - can I ask you about this? I think, Jimi, this is where you were going to go, too, on this, this whole question of the president taking personal responsibility for this. It fascinates me. It's his second speech in a couple of days on this question. I mean, some, you know, might argue that isn't that what you have Cabinet secretaries for, to address this? What's your take on this? He's saying, this is my - the buck stops with me. Ken?

Mr. IZRAEL: Me or Ken?

RUDIN: I'm sorry, I thought you were talking to Jimi. Well, actually, I think perhaps a part of it was a reaction to people like Dick Cheney, who were trying to play politics with it and he's saying, look, I am not avoiding blame. I am not avoiding responsibility. It is my responsibility. It is the government's responsibility. After all, I am the head of the government. I think what he did was try to head off the ongoing political nonsense that's going on about blame and pointing fingers, and he made a specific point to saying, this is not about blame, it's about taking responsibility, and I take that responsibility.

MARTIN: Jimi, what were you going to say?

Mr. IZRAEL: Am I only one upset that nobody lost their jobs? You know what I mean? I mean that there's a whole lot of talk about dot connecting and thread weaving, but at the end of the day, you know, when you mess up at your gig, somebody gets cut. I think it's really noble to fall on the sword and say, the buck stops with me. But at the same time, you know, this was a major screw-up, in the president's words. Somebody needs to lose their job.

RUDIN: The good news, of course, is that Peter Orszag had another child. So, I think that's the good news about the administration.

MARTIN: Well, just for people who don't know what Ken is talking about, the director of OMB - what this has to do with national security, I am not sure...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...but the director of the OMB, who's engaged to an ABC correspondent, who apparently just had a child by another woman. He's basically become Tom Brady. I don't know how that happened.

RUDIN: He's the father of our country.

MARTIN: But anyway, Pablo, what were you going to say?

Mr. TORRE: I was just going to say that I hope - I mean, looking forward, I hope that this speech doesn't fall just under the realm of the larger issue of, you know, security theater, that something actually happens. I think on the one level, obviously there's intelligence in the watch list which we are not going to be privy to on the most nuanced level. But I think the pressing issue for most Americans is just when you enter the airport now, is it going to be, you know, is it going to be annoying, or is it going to be actually substantive and sort of reformed?

I think one question is, at the rate we're going and the rate at which people I think are able to know it and be fearful is, how much closer do we move towards, you know, the model at Ben-Gurion International Airport? I mean, how much do we keep up the American model as it stands, recognize that it's flawed in certain inherent ways, and how much do we sort of swallow our pride and say we need to change things on a very real level?

MARTIN: But what he's talking about is just the intensive questioning that people go through when they are flying into or out of Ben-Gurion Airport...

Mr. TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...whatever carrier they use, whether they use the Israeli national carrier El Al or they use others, they - intensive screening, which is one reason why, when you fly into Israel, you have to show up at the airport three hours early and, you know - but to Jimi's point about this sort of, why didn't somebody lose their job. I mean, the president addressed that specifically. He said, you know, these are systemic failures.

And so the question I have for you, Jimi, is wouldn't that be national security theater - as the term Pablo used - to just sort of fire somebody just to say you fired somebody when in fact, if they're operating according to the protocols and it's the protocols that are wrong - I mean, it's not like that situation at Newark, where a guy literally walked off his job for whatever reason and let some guy, you know, walk under the velvet rope, as it were, and shut down the whole airport, you know, for hours.

Mr. IZRAEL: It there's some guy at McDonald's half-cooking fries and a manager takes responsibility, that's all well and good, but I don't want to go back to that McDonald's if that same dude is still working. I want that dude to get canned, you know, bottom line. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ken Rudin and Pablo Torre. Arsalan?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, you guys are, you know, talking about the system used at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. And what Israel has been fantastic at doing is behavioral profiling...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yes, yes.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...which is actually very distinct from racial and ethnic profiling. You know, if you listen to some of the commentators on Fox News, I mean, some of them have blatantly said that we should have separate lines for Muslims at the airports, that, you know, every Muslim male - including like, 5- and 6-year-olds - should be given full-body strip searches.

And you know, the absurdity of that is mind-boggling. You know, what the Israelis do is essentially, they behaviorally profile where they have thousands of agents - and I don't know if we have the resources to hire all these agents to do this sort of behavioral profiling. But, you know, it bases things on criminal probable cause and suspicious activity, which is exactly what we should be doing.

MARTIN: You know, the interesting thing about this is that apparently, this Abdulmuttalab has been singing like a bird...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...since he was apprehended. So clearly, he did - he wanted to unburden himself. It seems very clear to me that he was a reluctant...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...warrior. And I think that that's an interesting lesson for us, somehow or another. Before we take a break, Ken, could you tell us a little bit about the Senate races? I mean, this is a very tricky time politically for the president. Big political news: Two senators have announced - two Democrats have announced their retirement. Two - a Democrat has - in the House has switched to the Republican Party - surprising, apparently, even his staff. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?

RUDIN: The headlines had not been good for the Democratic Party and obviously, even with 60 votes, President Obama is fighting very, very hard and long, and arduously trying to fight to push this health-care plan. So obviously, even 60 is not enough. The number 60 seems to be disappearing. Byron Dorgan, the Democrat from North Dakota, announced he would not run again. That is a body blow for the Democratic Party, because there's a very popular Republican governor there, John Hoeven, who is probably going to take the seat.

But where is - everybody was moaning and, you know, complaining about Chris Dodd leaving, yet that might be very good news for the Democratic Party. Chris Dodd was in tons of troubles. His polling numbers were awful. He had a lot of things with AIG bonuses and Countrywide Financial, sweetheart deals, those allegations. He has stepped down after five terms. He said he's had enough. He's going to - probably going to lose. Richard Blumenthal, who's the state attorney general there, the most popular guy in Connecticut, the Democratic Party may have taken a body blow in North Dakota, but they may have saved that seat in Connecticut.

MARTIN: You know, they're talking about Harold Ford, the former congressman from Tennessee who made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate.

RUDIN: Nineteen - 2006.

MARTIN: And now he's talking - he's moved to New York. Now he's talking about running for Senate there?

RUDIN: Against Kirsten Gillibrand, which is very interesting because one, Chuck Schumer, the administration, Vice President Biden, everybody has - anybody who's tried to challenge Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate when Hillary Clinton left to become secretary of State - everybody who's tried to challenge her, they said no, no, no. We have to unite behind her. Harold Ford is very popular, a tremendous fundraiser. He lost that bitter race in 2006 with the psst, Harold, you know, call me, with that racial, you know, toned commercial.

Mayor Bloomberg is perhaps behind him. There are a lot of big-money people. They're also saying the fact well, you know, there are no African-Americans in the Senate now that Roland Burris is going to leave. David Paterson may be forced out by a white candidate. This will be a great opportunity to get Harold Ford in. I suspect he doesn't run..

MARTIN: Well, we need to take a short break but when we come back, we're going to continue with the Barbershop guys on the other side of the break. We'll talk about NBA star Gilbert Arenas - knucklehead - and his indefinite suspension. And we'll have our Super Bowl picks, and we'll talk more politics. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We going to continue with our weekly visit to the Barbershop and a little later, we'll talk about the intersection of sports and faith. We'll hear from an author who has been thinking about the many expressions of personal faith we have become used to seeing and hearing on and off the playing field. Is it too much, or is it a helpful antidote to some of the hype and excess of big-time sports? We'll talk more about this a little later. But first, back to journalists Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Pablo Torre and Ken Rudin. They're finishing their shape-ups in the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, fellas, the NBA suspends Washington Wizard baller Gilbert Arenas indefinitely and without pay. This comes after point -reports that he allegedly pulled a gun on his teammate. Holy mackerel, Andy.

MARTIN: You know, this is - Washington is a big sports town- as, of course, you know - that, you know, a new football coach was hired for the Redskins this week. But this - I think this Arenas news overshadowed that. I'll just - NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Arenas on Wednesday, saying that he was not, quote, currently fit to take the court in an NBA game. And here's an example of why he said that. Here's a short clip of Arenas talking with reporters a day before he got suspended.

Mr. GILBERT ARENAS (Basketball Player, Washington Wizards): If I really did something wrong, it would bother me. You know, I would feel, you know, remorse in what I did. But I didn't do anything.

Unidentified Man #1: You've already admitted that you did have the guns in the locker room, but there have been reports now that they may have not been licensed guns, and that you may not have had a permit for them. How do you respond to that?

Mr. ARENAS: I mean, that's what I've been dealing - with the D.A.

Unidentified Man #2: What was it like to go into the D.A.'s office? Saying you - you know, you talked to the U.S. attorney's office. What was it like to go in? You know what I mean? Were you nervous at all? I mean, were they grilling you?

Mr. ARENAS: Yeah, of course I was nervous. I thought I was going to go in to be seeing the movie "Law Abiding Citizen," and then have black rooms, spotlight. I thought that was going to be it. But, no. It was at a conference table.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Dude's a mess. Thank you for that, Michel. Pablo, let me shoot it...

Mr. TORRE: Whoops.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...I mean, yeah. Let me toss it over to you. I know it's kind of a silly question, but how long is indefinite?

Mr. TORRE: Indefinite, I mean, at this point is pretty much just a term he's using because he wants to figure out where the legal process goes. I think David Stern, you know, whatever - no matter what happens, is going to suspend him for rest of the year.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. TORRE: I think that's a forgone conclusion at this point, which would be, you know, I guess, the most stiff penalty. Four guns. I mean, you had players like Delonte West carrying guns, guys who threatened other player with guns before. But there's only been, really, two-game, three-game, four-game suspensions.

This is really a landmark, as far as guns go. And that's because the gun is David Stern's number one, I think, bugaboo as far as the NBA's, quote-unquote, image problem goes. I mean, this is the guy who instituted a dress code because he thought it was too thuggish. Now whether you believe that Gilbert Arenas is a thug, I think, is a matter of debate. I think you might say that he's just simply unhinged, that his history shows him to be a prankster, more of a prankster and less of a nefarious sort of guy.

But I think the bottom line is there was this issue of him not really caring about having guns in the locker room, which goes along with what has proved to be a common problem in the NBA, which is guns not being given the proper seriousness or gravity that, I guess, the commissioner and maybe even society at large, at this point, demands of it.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, Pablo?

MARTIN: Can I...

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, Pablo? I take some exception to that, the characterization of the thug. I mean, these aren't thugs. These are multi-millionaires who - everybody knows how much money they make, and they're walking around with targets on their back in a recession. You know, I'm not going to co-sign homeboy pulling out guns in the locker room because guns are not toys, but somebody has to protect these people. You know, these multi-millionaires, you know, everybody knows that they walk around with, you know, house payments and whole house - house prices on their wrist and around their neck. You know, I don't know. Maybe the NBA, instead of a - I don't know. Maybe the NBA should come up with its own security force.

MARTIN: They have their own security force, number one. And number two, why can't they afford to hire personal security in the same way that many celebrities do?

Mr. IZRAEL: Exactly.

MARTIN: I mean, they have - there is a security force.

Mr. IZRAEL: That's a point worth making. I mean, that's a point worth making.

MARTIN: But Jimi, you know, I was curious about this whole thing - with the fact that he and this other teammate were having odds, and the other teammate seems to have pulled a gun on him, which was loaded. And then he tried to - Arsalan, you wanted to talk about this - he actually seems to, in part, have been less than honest in - to protect this other teammate. Does that put a different spin on it for you, Arsalan?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, I think the legal aspect of it is what's going to be most interesting, you know. Here in the District, you know, even after the D.C. -the District's existing gun ban, which made possession of a firearm in the city a crime, which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the D.C. City Council passed an amendment last year to be in compliance with the Supreme Court, that still required anyone with a handgun to register it within the city.

And so it still makes it illegal for a person in the District to have a gun who had ever been convicted of a felony or anywhere in the United States. And let's not forget in 2003, Arenas pled no contest to a misdemeanor for possessing a concealed weapon and driving without a license when he was with the Golden State Warriors.

And then, you know, on top of that, you know, I've seen Agent Zero play here, you know, dozens of times at the Verizon Center. And his most recent thing where, you know, he's, you know, with all of his teammates and he's doing the two-gun salute in the air, you know, that really - I think that was the last straw...

RUDIN: That's what put Stern over the edge, right?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yes.

Mr. TORRE: Can I...

MARTIN: I just...

Mr. IZRAEL: Can I clarify my point about NBA security? Of course, NBA has its own security, but what I'm thinking is that part of your contract should be that NBA assigns you a personal bodyguard. I mean, you can go work for some Fortune 500 companies and get a personal security guard. So, I don't know. I think if I were in that position, it would make me feel more secure.

MARTIN: Why don't you hire your own?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Well...

MARTIN: I mean you buy...

Mr. IZRAEL: What...

MARTIN: ...your own laptop, don't you? I mean, what's...

Mr. IZRAEL: Why shouldn't the NBA work it into my contract?

Mr. TORRE: Well, I think that what's going to happen is that David Stern is essentially going to make Gilbert Arenas the Plaxico Burress of the NBA now.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right, right.

Mr. TORRE: He's going to make an example of him.

MARTIN: Forgive me, that's a terrible - Plaxico Burress. It's a terrible segue, but it is, you know, he was a big star at the Super Bowl last year...

RUDIN: Two years ago. Whatever.

MARTIN: Two years ago, two years ago, and what a fall since then. But it is that time, so Super Bowl picks. Guys, who wants to start? Ken, do you want to start?

RUDIN: I just want to say one thing. You're talking about - later in the segment, you're going to talk about faith in sports. Speaking of football, every time the Redskins miss a field goal, I yell Jesus Christ...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: ...and I think that's faith in sports.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And it didn't really help very much, did it?

RUDIN: No, it did not. No.

MARTIN: So maybe you should quit that.

RUDIN: I love the fact that there were so many rematches there. I guess Cincinnati looks good because of the mourning of their lost player.

MARTIN: Arsalan, picks.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I'm sticking with my picks, New England Patriots over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. I think they're going to make good from the fourth-and-two debacle at Indianapolis. And I think you never want to play the Patriots in the playoffs.

MARTIN: Pablo, can you do that? Can you predict, or is that against your ethos?

Mr. TORRE: I can - I will predict. I will violate every ethos for the Barbershop. The Cowboys over the Colts, New Jersey's own Miles Austin redeems the entire Jersey Shore when he catches a game-winning touchdown pass.

MARTIN: Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: And I'm riding for the Ravens because they used to be the Browns. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is that a reason? Because their uniforms are cute? ..TEXT: MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for TheRoot.com. He's also a presidential fellow at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our studios in New York. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and a legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. Both Arsalan and Ken were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thanks so much for speaking with us, guys.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

RUDIN: Thanks.

Mr. TORRE: Thanks.

RUDIN: Go Washington Bullets.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, Yup.

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