Fallows On The News: Security, Senate Retirements and Smart Phones

The latest terrorism security lapse could have a long-term ripple effect. James Fallows from The Atlantic talks with host Guy Raz discusses that incident, the news that two Democratic senators are retiring and the latest Google smart phone.

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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And the big story this week: A failure to connect the dots.

President BARACK OBAMA: The U.S. government had the information, scattered throughout the system, to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): This was more than a stumble. This was really a glaring error.

Pres. 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.

RAZ: That was President Obama and Republican Congressman Peter King on the intelligence lapses that almost led to disaster on Christmas Day. It's one of the stories our news analyst, "The Atlantic's" James Fallows, has been following this week.

Jim, I haven't spoken to you since 2009. So Happy New Year.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, "The Atlantic Monthly"): Happy New Year to you, Guy. Welcome back.

RAZ: A dramatic public admission by the president this week. He is responsible, he said, for the gaps that allowed a known radical to board that flight to the U.S.

Mr. FALLOWS: I'm sure there are many aspects to this case we're going to be studying for a long time, and in the etiology of the actual problem itself and the responses of the Obama administration versus the way the Bush administration responded, when the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had his aborted airline attempt in late 2001.

So far, we can see that President Obama has been quicker to take personal responsibility himself and to issue a report. But in a way, that's understandable, in that the Bush administration was still, you know, recovering from the shock from 9/11.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FALLOWS: What I think is really interesting about these intelligence failures of the past week: the would-be Nigerian bomber, I think, illustrates or helps us see the combination of incompetence and brilliance with which al-Qaida has carried out some of its plots over the last eight years. Incompetence in the sense that we have another sort of unfortunate figure who couldn't quite carry off the same kind of bomb that was tried eight years ago, but brilliance in the sense of the response that it evokes from the whole U.S. system.

It was because of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, that tens of millions of people have been taking off their shoes ever since and no liquids on airplanes...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FALLOWS: ...and who knows what kind of change in air travel we're going to have now. And that is something to take seriously of just how a small number of people had these enormous ripple effect changes.

RAZ: Jim, as we heard earlier in the program, a tough outlook for Democrats possibly going into the midterm elections in the fall - nothing new. But what will it mean for President Obama's ambitious agenda if he loses that filibuster-proof majority he now has?

Mr. FALLOWS: Certainly, it seems probable now that the Democrats won't have 60 seats in the Senate. And after these midterm elections, they probably will still have majority in both Houses. For the Democrats to lose their current majority in the House, they'd have to have losses on the scale of Bill Clinton in the 1994 elections. And people don't think that's likely.

But I suspect what might happen, if the Democrats retain a majority in both Houses but don't have the 60 seats super majority, you might see a resurrection of the whole sort of anti-filibuster argument, which you've heard over the last month or two of saying, is it really fair to have this kind of super majority, anti-Democratic provision in the Senate? That is something that each new Congress can change for itself by majority votes, so we might conceivably see a discussion (unintelligible) raised again.

RAZ: Hmm. Jim, I'm going to embarrass you here because you're such a modest guy. But I think everyone ought to read your cover story in The Atlantic this month because unlike so many stories we've heard about America's so-called decline, you actually think we're in pretty good shape.

Mr. FALLOWS: I guess my first reply should be to say, aw, shocks. Well, thanks. I do hope people can read the story, which is online at The Atlantic site. I spent a lot of time on it interviewing people when I came back from China. And I tried to do something that I think is not that normal in our political discourse to make both a pretty positive and a somewhat negative argument.

The pretty positive one is about the basic resiliency and fitness to prevail of the U.S. in modern, economic and cultural, and other kinds of competition, precisely because this is a place where people still want to come and lots of our businesses and institutions are self-renewing. The negative part involves the one part of our life, which is not so self-renewing, which is our governing structure.

So I mean this to be an encouraging and cautionary tale, and hope that the net is to give people some sense of where we can focus our efforts going forward.

RAZ: Finally, Jim, before we let you go, I understand reading your blog this week that you are one of the few lucky people to have gotten your hands on the Google smartphone - the Nexus One. What do you think about it?

Mr. FALLOWS: It is a lot of fun. And I'm sure that all kinds of people will debate its impact on the industry, in having this model where you can buy a phone without having to buy wireless service.

What I love so far is voice search. I can speak in a query to a Google-type search - in fact, a Google search, it's a Google phone - and it comes back with the actual real answers. That, to me, is something like the Holy Grail.

RAZ: That's The Atlantic's James Fallows. He's with us most Saturdays here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Jim, thanks. And talk to you next week.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: And, Jim, one more thing.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes?

RAZ: I hope you'll keep that Google phone tucked away while you're driving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FALLOWS: It's a deal.

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