Analysis

Sizing Up Obama's Measured Response To Terrorism

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The fallout from the failed attack on a Detroit-bound airliner Christmas Day continued throughout the past week. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR news analyst Juan Williams about the Obama administration's moves on terrorism prevention and national security.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The fallout from the failed attack on the Detroit-bound airliner Christmas Day continued throughout the past week. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, pleaded not guilty in federal court Friday. The day before, President Obama detailed what he called a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had about Abdulmutallab. He then ordered reforms in intelligence gathering and airport security.

NPR News analyst Juan Williams is in the studio to discuss the week's events. Good morning, Juan. Nice to see you. Welcome back.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Nice to be here, Liane. Good morning.

HANSEN: So, how has the White House's response to these renewed terror threats both at home and abroad playing out in Congress, which is about to get back to work, and among the American people? Was he firm enough in his remarks on Thursday?

WILLIAMS: Well, look, you know what? By the end of the week he was displaying some sense of anger and anger at the bureaucracy and saying that the buck stops here with him, the president of the United States. He did not fire anyone, and there was some thought that one way to deal with this was some bloodletting. That you would point at somebody who was like the Barney Fife of this drama and say, Barney, you got to go. You know, Andy would say, sorry, you've gone too far this time.

If there was going to be such a character, it would've been John Brennan. He's in charge of this at the White House. And that instinct has been resisted because it seems as if, Liane, it goes much broader than simply one person. You know, when the report, the initial study that the president requested was put out late last week, what it came to was some very simple things, like, there is no process in which everybody who's identified as a terror or terror suspect has their visa status reviewed. I mean, you would've thought, well, of course, if you're on some kind of terror list they're not going to let you fly anywhere. But, no, it turns out that just wasn't done. Secondly, there's something like this: There is no single database that has all the terrorists in it. In other words, you may have varied places for it. So, you'll get, for example, CIA running its set of analysts. And then you get the National Counterterrorism Center running its set of things. And then, of course, you got on top of that this agency created in 2004, this National Director of Intelligence.

So, you get all of these people doing all different things. And there was a lack of coordination and as a result there were holes in the process. You would've think that there was several layers and that would have precluded it, but, in fact, it allowed it. So, the word around Washington, sort of, byword for the last week, has been connect the dots. And it's led cartoonists to make fun of it and all the rest.

HANSEN: Right. But there's also correcting mistakes and that's what President Obama said, but this is also political. There's a political aspect to it. Republicans called for heads to roll. Might the president's words be more effective if he did lay blame at someone's feet?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that from the White House perspective, they realize that politically, as you put it, Liane, there would be a sense of, you know, that there was somebody hanging in the wind and someone took responsibility and the administration understands how serious it is.

President Obama's response is you don't need to shake up the bureaucracy at this moment when it's vulnerable and when people, especially at the CIA after the bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven agents, feel as if, you know what? They're on the frontlines and that they are now not only sacrificing life, but they are being unfairly targeted and that there are other people in this game. So you have to be careful, I think, from the president's perspective, not to discombobulate a system that is struggling to find its feet.

HANSEN: Who is the White House point person on all of this?

WILLIAMS: Well, it'd be John Brennan, the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, Liane.

HANSEN: John Brennan. And so he will continue to ask his advice and counsel?

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. And Brennan has lots of experience. He was over at the CIA. He was a candidate to be the CIA director when Leon Panetta was put in place. But, of course, there was some question, essentially, from the left about his participation and enhanced interrogations and all the rest.

Now, Brennan got in trouble last week, as it turns out, when he was on many of the Sunday TV shows and said, essentially, that decisions were made along the line about how to handle the Christmas bomber. Not to, in fact, put him in military hands, but to allow civilian courts to handle the matter - all of this kind of thing.

And, again, later in the week, then he also said this business about allowing people from Guantanamo to go back to Yemen, even though it's suspected that some of them are getting back into the terror game. A lot of that now has been reversed by the president. The president is saying no more detainees going back to Yemen for the time being. And similarly, the White House is making a big effort this week - Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman - to say that before Abdulmutallab was put into the civilian criminal justice system, he spent a great deal of time with federal investigators and was debriefed about his contacts with people in Yemen.

HANSEN: And very briefly, though, midterm elections are coming up, so that is going to add a different veneer to all of this.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's the politics. Now you've come to what, I think, is the story as we go forward. And the quick story here is that Democrats have long been suspect as being week on national defense and terror. Imagine Dick Cheney as a singular voice of criticism over this entire episode.

HANSEN: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks a lot for coming in.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.

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