What Obama's Terror Speech Got Right and Wrong

Is President Obama taking the right approach to security and accountability?

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President Obama last night addressed the nation to discuss the failed Christmas airliner bombing.  He took personal responsibility, making clear that no officials would be fired, although he pointed to clear failures of intelligence agencies to share data that may have helped to deter the foiled attack. (This is the closest thing observers have found to the "shock" National Security Adviser Jim Jones previewed.) Obama also outlined new security and intelligence measures that will effect everything from airport screening to how intel is shared (full White House explanation here, New York Times summary of the changes here). Is Obama taking the right approach to terror and security?

  • Fight Terror With Data Sharing  Juan Cole notes that "[N]o one was in charge of integrating all this information. That lapse is what Obama wants to change, reasonably enough. John Brennan insists that the problem here was not possessiveness about information and cases, as with CIA/ FBI/ INS lack of cooperation on the 9/11 hijackers. It wasn't that the various units did not want to share, but that there was no obvious person or unit that was responsible for gathering these threads together (a sort of data mining)." He adds, "Spend some money to fix that. It would be a rounding error in the Pentagon budget, and the resulting improvement would add more to our safety than buying more bombs would."
  • The Risks of Overstating Threats  Democracy Arsenal's David Shorr says Obama avoided them. "President Obama is saying that if we make these murderous glory-seekers our nation's main focus, we only build them up and diminish ourselves," he writes. "When it comes down to it, the essence of Cheneyism is that you can never overstate the threat from the terrorists, never be too dark in your assmptions, never do too much to counter them."
  • Where's The Accountability?  The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan fumes, "Here's what that says to the men and women of the security and intelligence institutions of government who failed us: you will never be fired, and you will never face real consequences for failing to do your job competently. And when a system never holds any of its specific members responsible, there is no direct incentive to get things right."
  • Too Little Too Late  The Washington Post frets that "Mr. Obama's solutions have the air of the small bore." They write, "Perhaps a series of individual tweaks will do the job. But the administration report suggests that the problem is less tractable than Mr. Obama has acknowledged. His depiction Thursday of the shortcomings was admirably honest and more frightening than previously portrayed. His proposed fixes did not entirely reassure."
  • Obama Rightly Slams Cheney Crew  The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen highlights a section of the speech he calls "a pretty forceful rebuke of the entire line of argument launched over the last two weeks by Cheney, DeMint, Hoekstra, King, Steele, and their assorted allies. In effect, Obama was reminding the nation that the Republican approach is fundamentally backwards, and at odds with who we are as a people. It's a reminder he may need to repeat a few more times before it sinks in with the political establishment."
  • Too Much Pressure On Intel Agencies  Foreign Policy's Kori Schake praises Obama for taking responsibility and insists that "our government does terrifically well at protecting us" given that they "have to be right all day every day." Schake, a former Bush-era official, warns that the administration undercuts that support by putting too much scrutiny on the CIA and other agencies. "Attorney General Eric Holder's prosecutorial attitudes toward the people who have to make difficult daily choices in order to protect us will make them less likely to run risks," she writes, referencing Holder's moves against torture and indefinite detention.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.