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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 8, 2010

New security breach another hurdle


By Jules Witcover

Nearly eight years after a failure to "connect the dots" contributed to the worst terrorist act against the United States in history, we're back to the same explanation or alibi for the close call in that flight approaching Detroit on Christmas Day.

At least this time around, President Obama is not saying (as former President Bush did after the 9/11 attacks) that "never in anybody's thought process ... about how to protect America did we ever think that the evil-doers would fly not one but four commercial aircraft into precious U.S. targets."

He was flat wrong about that contention. The government at the time already had a considerable array of experts, hired to think the unthinkable, who had entertained the possibility. They were aware of the flight training in this country of suspicious characters and other clues that were missed dots that were not connected.

As early as 1995, a National Intelligence Estimate warned of the vulnerability of the White House, the Capitol and "symbols of capitalism such as Wall Street." In advance of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke raised the possibility of a plane crashing into the site.

One of the principal conclusions of the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission was that "national intelligence is still organized around the collection disciplines" of the various agencies, "not the mission. The importance of integrated, all-source analyses cannot be underestimated. Without it, it is not possible to connect the dots."

Major organizational improvements in intelligence gathering and analysis were made thereafter. But, incredibly, while the vital information to prevent the Christmas Day near-miss was available and circulated this time, the dots once again were not adequately connected by analysts.

What made the matter worse, in terms of an ability to rationalize the failure, was that the dots in this particular case were so plainly visible and telltale. It was the bomber's own father, a prominent and reputable Nigerian businessman, who blew the whistle on him as an outspoken anti-American of jihadist sentiments.

After a somewhat tardy reaction, President Obama has finally acknowledged that while "this was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we already had."

In a rare public flash of anger, he said this outcome was "not acceptable and I will not tolerate it." But he also said it was not the time for "finger-pointing," suggesting that his hard words would not be followed up with the usual action in such circumstances the firing of the person or persons most clearly responsible.

Although Obama has accepted responsibility as the man who sits at the desk where the buck stops, it's often the case in such situations that the head of the responsible department under the president becomes the sacrificial lamb, in this case Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Her initial defensive comment that the system worked, in that the bomb worn by the Nigerian passenger did not go off, made her an immediate and obvious target. But when she backtracked, the ax did not fall. As a strong Obama supporter in his 2008 campaign, and as a former governor of Arizona with heavy experience in border security affairs, she escaped the blade.

These facts have not stopped Republicans in Congress, and Bush expatriates like Vice President Dick Cheney and former Bush political adviser Karl Rove, from casting Obama as a weak sister in the saga, for in his fashion his tough talk. In his oft-demonstrated loyalty to his loyal administration team, he seems even to some admirers to be too willing to turn the other cheek. To his critics, he cautioned: "Now is not the time for partisanship. It's a time for citizenship."

In another matter of infinitely less importance, he has so far also turned a deaf ear to critics who say he should fire the White House social secretary who appears was asleep at the switch when the infamous gate-crashers of the Indian president's dinner pulled off their pre-Christmas stunt.

Along with Obama's seemingly limitless bid for bipartisanship toward contemptuous Republicans in Congress, his image as Mr. Nice Guy seems hard to shake, even in this latest tougher talk on botched national security.