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Blame Game Follows Foiled Terrorist Attack

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Blame Game Follows Foiled Terrorist Attack

National Security

Blame Game Follows Foiled Terrorist Attack

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On the next to last day of the year, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Obama says a systemic failure allowed a suspected terrorist to board a plane headed to Detroit on Christmas Day. The president vowed to fix the system quickly and promised accountability at every level. Mr. Obama's comments came after a good deal of criticism about the government's handling of the case, both before and after the fact.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama says some parts of the U.S. intelligence community were alerted weeks ago to concerns that a young Nigerian man was becoming radicalized and could pose a threat. But Mr. Obama says that information was not effectively distributed. What's more, he says, there were other bits of intelligence that could have and should have been pieced together before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and allegedly tried to blow it up.

President BARACK OBAMA: Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags. And the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.

HORSLEY: Obama called the breakdown in information-sharing totally unacceptable. And he ordered that a preliminary review of the problem be finished by Thursday. Mr. Obama says the country must fix the holes in its security net quickly because lives are at stake.

President OBAMA: As president, I will do everything in my power to support the men and women in intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security to make sure they've got the tools and resources they need to keep America safe. But it's also my job to ensure that our intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security systems, and the people in them, are working effectively and held accountable.

HORSLEY: It was the second time in as many days the president spoke out publicly about the Christmas Day attack - a marked contrast from the weekend, when Mr. Obama stayed out of sight, vacationing in Hawaii with his family. Aides say the president deliberately kept a low profile at first, to avoid alarming the public or rewarding the attackers. But risk communication expert, Baruch Fischhoff, says the administration may have worried too much about calming travelers' nerves. Fischhoff, who's at Carnegie Mellon University, says what people want from their government at a time like this is competence and honesty.

Professor BARUCH FISCHHOFF (Social and Decision Sciences and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University): They don't want to be reassured, or to be worked, or to be spun. They want to know the facts so that they can make their decisions. And often officials have insufficient faith in the public. They think that the public can't be trusted to handle the truth and make responsible decisions.

HORSLEY: Republicans were quick to pounce on perceived missteps of the administration - especially the comment, Sunday, from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, that the system had worked. GOP Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who's running for governor in Michigan, even sent out a fundraising letter, criticizing the response of those he called weak-kneed liberals. The Democratic National Committee called the letter shameless. But political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says this is the new normal.

Mr. JACK PITNEY (Political Analyst, Claremont McKenna College): There was a time when a national security issue would not have aroused a partisan reaction. But those days are long gone. The Republicans have had a sense of issue ownership when it comes to issues of homeland and national security, and consequently, it makes political sense for them to think they may have an opening here.

HORSLEY: The holiday timing of the incident is a double-edged sword for politicians. It's a slow news week, so the GOP criticism of the president has received intensive coverage. But it's also a time when many people are not fully plugged in. Gallup's daily tracking poll showed no change in Mr. Obama's approval rating in the days immediately after the Christmas attack. Editor-in-chief Frank Newport of Gallup says before the attack, terrorism was barely on voters' radar screens.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor in Chief, Gallup): In terms of most important problem facing the country, terrorism had jumped way up after 9/11 in the fall of 2001, but fell off fairly soon thereafter, and has been very low since. In our December poll, for example, just three percent of Americans spontaneously said that terrorism was the most important problem facing the country, way down there near the bottom of the list.

HORSLEY: Five times that many people called health care the nation's most important problem. And that number was dwarfed by those who are most concerned about the economy.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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