Flashback: Christmas Bombing Controversies

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Compared to the turmoil of Christmas 2009, this year's holidays have been relaxingly devoid of controversy. With President Obama in Hawaii, Congress out of session, and Washington coming off its most productive month in years, politicians and citizens alike have had an easier time letting go of it all for a few days.

At this time last year, the nation was consumed by fallout from the Christmas Day bombing attempt, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly blew up a Delta plane en route to Detroit. After the attempt, questions of intelligence cordinateion, detainee rights, and Obama's leadership were hotly disputed during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

In the midst of this year's relative tranquility, here's a look back at the political storylines of the Christmas Day bombing attempt:

  • The initial shock. On Christmas, as most people were busy with other things besides national security, TV viewers heard reporting like this, from CNN's Kate Bouldan at 7:30 p.m. Christmas Day:
... according to a federal security bulletin obtained by CNN, a Nigerian national ignited a small explosive device at the end of an international flight that ended in Detroit earlier today. Also, according to this bulletin, this passenger is claiming to have extremist affiliation and claims the device was acquired in Yemen, along with instructions as to when it should be used. The FBI is leading the investigation, and obviously is checking into this person's background and capabilities. The federal bulletin says this passenger is in custody and has been taken to a local hospital to be treated for burns sustained from the small explosion.

Now, a Homeland Security official tells CNN the aviation threat level is not going up. But within that level there are additional security measures that can be taken, both seen and unseen. So the sorts of things that travelers may see at the airport in coming days may include additional gate security -- gate screenings as well as more K9 teams throughout airports ...
  • Where's Obama? The president, on vacation in Hawaii, didn't appear before TV cameras to discuss the bombing attempt until three days after it occurred, on December 28. The next day Obama announced he had received updates from his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, on the post-attempt reviews Obama had ordered. The delayed appearance was criticized by Obama's political opponents, raising questions of how best to handle a terrorist attempt, from a PR standpoint: deliver a statement before cameras immediately and add gravity to the attempt, or wait to appear and risk looking inattentive.
  • Mirandizing Abdulmutallab. After it was reported that federal agents had read Abdulmutallab Miranda rights after his arrest, national security hawks denounced the administration, while news outlets delivered conflicting reports over whether Abdulmutallab stopped talking to federal agents before or after his rights were read. David Axelrod said that the U.S. had "not lost anything" by Mirandizing Abdulmutallab, but debate raged over whether terrorists should be Mirandized, and whether Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated longer before his rights were read. Sources told the Post in February that Abdulmutallab had been providing information to U.S. officials while in custody.
  • "The system worked." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" two days after the bombing attempt, declared that "the system worked" after the attempt, as alert passengers had subdued Abdulmutallab. Asked about Abdulmutallab's potential al Qaeda connections, she said:
What we are focused on is making sure that the air environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And one thing I'd like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated.
This did not sit well, given that the "system" had so clearly failed to prevent the bombing attempt. Napolitano was criticized heavily, and the administration was seen as out of touch as the "system worked" sound byte was replayed over and over. Two days later, Obama referred to a "systemic failure" of the intelligence community and homeland security system leading up to the attempt.
  • Someone's gotta go. In the days following the attempt, pressure grew for Obama to fire someone on his national security team. After her "system worked" comment, some thought he should dismiss Napolitano. "If the White House wants to assure people that it takes the War on Terror seriously ... they could start by firing this patently unqualified hack," wrote National Review's Jonah Goldberg. Obama didn't fire anyone in the heat of post-Christmas controversy, but Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair announced his resignation on May 21, after Obama had defended him following the attempt. In June, Obama nominated James Clapper to succeed Blair.
  • A failure to communicate. The most pressing issue raised on Christmas 2009 was a lack of communication between segments of the U.S. intelligence community. Abdulmutallab's father had warned U.S. officials in Nigeria about his son's radicalization, the Associated Press reported the day after Christmas; he had been turned down for a British visa; U.S. officials had intercepted chatter about a pending attack by "the Nigerian." Abdulmutallab was on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list, but not the TSA's No-Fly List. It soon became clear that the intelligence community had failed to correlate multiple warning signs. The administration added dozens of names to the No-Fly List and announced revamped procedures as John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, conducted a review of the failures that allowed Abdulmutallab to board the plane.
  • A new epicenter of terrorism. The Christmas Day attempt put the Horn of Africa on the public's radar as a new global epicenter of terrorism, whereas Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula had been thought of as jihadism's main locations. The Pentagon doubled its spending on Yemen, The New York Times reported two days after Christmas, dedicating $70 million and special-forces units to training Yemeni forces.

Many of the issues raised on Christmas 2009 remain open for debate. Detainee policies, in particular, remain politically divisive.

But thankfully, none of them have been forced back into the news by another close call.

Thumbnail image credit: Getty Images

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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