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Botched Christmas Airline Bombing: A Look at Obama’s Handling of the Case and the Media’s Coverage

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President Obama has acknowledged that a “systemic failure” of the nation’s intelligence and security measures paved the way for last week’s aborted bomb attack on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. We take a look at the Obama administration’s handling of the case and the media’s coverage of it all with Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has acknowledged that a “systemic failure” of the nation’s intelligence and security measures paved the way for last week’s aborted bomb attack on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Speaking in Hawaii Tuesday, Obama blamed errors in intelligence collecting and sharing procedures for allowing a Nigerian man to smuggle explosives aboard the flight.

Twenty-three-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underpants bomber, is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker. Noting that Abdulmutallab’s father had previously alerted US authorities about his son’s views, the President questioned why his name had not been added to the no-fly list.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable. The reviews I’ve ordered will surely tell us more, but what already is apparent is that there was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama has ordered two reviews of airport security procedures and the system of watch lists. He said there were several points at which red flags would have been raised, adding he would, quote, “insist on accountability at every level.”

Abdulmutallab was charged Saturday with attempting to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and will be tried in civilian court. He is currently being questioned by the FBI and reportedly told them he received his training and explosives from al-Qaeda in Yemen. A group calling itself “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” said in an online statement that it had planned the attack.

For more, we go now to Washington, and we also will look at how the media has reacted to the attempted bombing and the administration’s handling of the case. We’re joined by Spencer Ackerman. He’s in Washington, DC, senior reporter for the Washington Independent. He maintains the “Attackerman blog” at Firedoglake.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Spencer.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Good morning, Ms. Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: Start off by just explaining who this young man is, what we know about him, the charges against him.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Abdulmutallab is a twenty-three-year-old Nigerian citizen who, by all accounts, is rather far from “the wretched of the earth.” His father is a wealthy Nigerian banker. He received a very fine education, mostly abroad, and somehow, over the course of the last several years, became increasingly radicalized, seemingly through interactions with extremists online. And we learned from today’s New York Times, as you mentioned in the segment earlier, that investigators here are looking at his time at college in Britain as a potential catalytic moment for his radicalization.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get your reaction to some of what various people are saying. This is former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge appearing on CNN’s Larry King Live.

    TOM RIDGE: I take a look at this individual who’s been charged criminally. Does that mean he’s going to get his Miranda warnings? Does that mean the only kind of information we want to get from him is if he volunteers it? He’s not a citizen of this country. He is a terrorist, and I don’t think he deserves the full range of criminal — protections of our criminal justice system as embodied in the Constitution of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to play an excerpt of you, Spencer Ackerman. You were on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday debating Pat Buchanan on the subject. This is a clip from that discussion.

    PAT BUCHANAN: What I’m saying is the first and highest priority when you apprehend him is not to make sure he gets his constitutional rights — he’s not even a citizen — but to get all of the information you can about where he came from, who trained him, where they are, are there other attacks coming, where are they coming. And if that means, frankly, you have to deny him pain medicine, because the child’s badly burned, I think you go ahead and do that. I’m not arguing for torture, but I am arguing —

    SPENCER ACKERMAN: You just did!

    PAT BUCHANAN: Nobody is. But I’m arguing for a hostile interrogation of this fellow, because our job is to protect American lives. It’s not to make sure his Miranda rights haven’t been violated.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pat Buchanan. You were debating him, Spencer Ackerman. Your response?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Like I said to Pat on Morning Joe, this is a completely invented controversy. I’ve been in contact with intelligence officials for the last couple days, as a lot of my colleagues have, and one thing that we have not heard at all is that the FBI has had any problem extracting information legally, humanely, and in accordance with our criminal justice system, from Abdulmutallab. The idea that we need to torture this man in order to prevent some kind of follow-on plot — or I don’t even know what, you know, Buchanan’s mind has run to in this sort of thing — is absolutely belied by the facts of the actual circumstance. The man has been charged in federal court. He will receive his day in court. He will undoubtedly be convicted because of the overwhelming amount of evidence, both on his person and eyewitness evidence on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. This is, as we — I think it’s uncontroversial to say — the system actually working, in a legal context.

AMY GOODMAN: I was quite surprised to see this debate going on right now, the anger at Abdulmutallab being charged as — in a US court, as opposed to — I think Pat Buchanan was saying things like, you know, why would he even be given pain medication if he was burned, all we need is information from him. The whole issue of torturing subjects.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Right, what we need to do is commit a war crime, basically. I mean, it’s disgusting.

AMY GOODMAN: But this whole discussion of him being tried in a US court, talk about that.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: As if convicting him in a US court is somehow less of a conviction? It’s hard to even — it’s hard to know, Amy, if I should take this seriously or not. You know? Is it an actual objection? And if so, it would be presumably based on an actual emergent problem. But there is no actually emergent problem. There’s no, you know, bar to convicting the guy. There’s overwhelming amounts of evidence. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have indicted him. Otherwise, there wouldn’t already be this process moving forward.

Obama — if there’s anything — and we can talk about what Obama said in Hawaii in a moment. But if there’s anything encouraging about the way Obama and the administration is handling it, it’s that his first instinct and the Justice Department’s first instinct was not to declare him an enemy combatant, was not to take him to some prison overseas, was not to say that he couldn’t be tried in the normal justice system, but to actually have FBI officials on the scene conduct an investigation of him, to question him, to extract information from him, and then to bring charges against him, when it was clear that information leading to a prosecution was in evidence. So if there’s, you know, any bright side from the immediate aftermath of the touchdown of Flight 253, it’s that.

And to see, you know, Tom Ridge, who was Homeland Security secretary when Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, in late 2001 was charged, tried and convicted in a civilian prison, suddenly saying that this is insufficient and an outrage and so on and so forth, is just too hypocritical and ridiculous to take seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s response, Spencer Ackerman?


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about it.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: So, so — OK, so let’s take first the policy implications of what he said, and then let’s deal with the politics, if we’ve got time for that.


SPENCER ACKERMAN: On what Obama called “systemic failures,” it’s important to point out that these do not appear, based on the information that we have right now — so take that as my caveat — that these are actually intelligence failures. If they were intelligence failures, it would mean that we had a lack of inputs for understanding the guy was dangerous. What we had was probably one of the strongest possible inputs for understanding that, and that’s his father going into the US embassy in Abuja, Nigeria on November 19th and saying he was concerned about his son’s radicalization. In the actual existing world of intelligence, that’s pretty good. That’s really good for what you’re going to get.

The problem is — and we can now debate, as we surely will next month when there are congressional hearings on this — whether that’s actually sufficient to put someone on the no-fly list. And I’ll explain what I mean by that.

The way the procedure works is, as what happened after the fathers walk into the embassy in Abuja, he goes on something called the TIDE list, which is sort of a database around the government, in both the intelligence community and the law enforcement community, and the diplomatic community, of people you have sort of pre-probable-cause suspicion about. There are reportedly about 550,000 individuals or pieces of data on that list.

What’s supposed to happen from there, and what did happen in this case, was that an interagency review occurred, asking, “Do we have enough information to recommend this individual to a further list called the Terrorist Screening Database?” And what happens is, the FBI, the intelligence community, the National Counterterrorism Center, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security evaluate that question according to a criteria. And that criteria is specific information leading to credible cause for reasonable suspicion, meaning it’s still pre-probable cause — it would not hold up in a court of law — but would be enough, from an intelligence and Homeland Security perspective, to recommend that person go to the Terrorist Screening Database. That’s housed in the FBI.

And what would happen there would be the State Department would receive notice from the intelligence community that it should revoke the guy’s visa. Now, remember, the guy gets a visa, Abdulmutallab, in London in June 2008 that’s good for two years. So, before we have any reason to believe he’s a threat, he gets his visa, and no one considers that particularly controversial.

What then would happen if an additional review occurs from the Terrorist Screening Database, is then, if there’s additional information perhaps, or rather additional policy considerations, he would then be put on the no-fly list. There are an untold number of people on the no-fly list. It’s several thousand. It could be in the tens of thousands. I am not currently sure about how large that is. But that asks, basically, are you not going to be allowed to get on a plane headed into the United States?

Now, remember, two years ago, three years ago, there were a whole lot of concerns from civil libertarians and other people really concerned about the no-fly list saying that the government was going too far adopting lax standards or insufficient standards for considering someone a threat. They were put on that no-fly list because of dubious or incomplete information.

Well, now what we’re talking about in this case, when we’re talking about a systemic failure here, is because Abdulmutallab gets on that plane, lowering those standards further. Now, if that’s the conversation the country wants, then fine. We should debate that, and we should decide that. But understand that if we do that, that if we say the standard for the TIDE database, where the guy was, specific credible information leading to reasonable suspicion that he’s a threat, should be enough to put someone on the no-fly list, that we’re really going to expand that no-fly list. The TIDE database is 550,000 people.

Now, perhaps there’s a sweet spot that we can hit, there’s a further balance that can be struck, and ultimately there would be some kind of balance acceptable from both a security perspective and a civil libertarian perspective for who should be on that flight, and from an economic perspective, because we’re also ultimately talking about a whole lot of international trade that will be cut off if the no-fly list expands to such a significant way. So, perhaps, you know, that’s a reasonable debate to be had. But there’s a suspicion — and you saw that from Clark Kent Irvin, the former Republican-appointed inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security — that we really are talking about expecting perfect security from Homeland Security.

And that’s not to diminish the threat that could have occurred from Abdulmutallab on this flight, but it is to say that there really is this balance to be struck and ask if we’re prepared to really expand that no-fly list. Are we going to regret that in another year or so after the passions of the moment subside?

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, last question. It’s the issue of Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the Republican, placing on hold President Obama’s choice to head the Transportation Security Agency, which is key here, because of the senator’s concern that the new leader, the former FBI agent Erroll Southers, would let TSA screeners join a labor union. Senator DeMint was asked about his objection to Southers on CNN on Tuesday.

SEN. JIM DeMINT: Collective bargaining was prohibited from the airport security. It is very different from a local police department. They’re having to deal with international threats, as we saw on Christmas Day. They have to constantly be changing. And there is no reason, no good security reason, that we should submit this to collective bargaining. All it is is politics. The President promised the unions that he would bring these 50,000 people into unions. And it just doesn’t make any sense for security.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator DeMint of South Carolina explaining why he’s put a hold on Erroll Southers’ appointment. Spencer Ackerman, your quick response? And also, why it took until September for President Obama to nominate Southers?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Is “class war” too incendiary a term? I mean, if we’re really going to take seriously the idea that this is an overwhelming terrorist threat, then the unions are not a greater threat than that. Collective bargaining is not a greater threat than that.

The reason why airport security was restricted from collective bargaining was a specific act on the part of the Bush administration to defund the left, to defund its political enemies and to advance an extremely pro-corporate agenda in the United States Congress and enshrine that into law, which they were successful at.

The idea that somehow you need the flexibility to ensure that airport security can’t be paid a decent wage, can’t enjoy benefits that other workers in security industries enjoy, is absolutely asinine. This is Jim DeMint serving his corporate backers. No one should take this seriously as a security measure. It’s a completely naked and, frankly, classist assault.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama —-

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Why did it take Obama so long -—

AMY GOODMAN: — waiting until September?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: There’s been a number of problems finding the right person for TSA. And frankly, it’s become something of a backwater. TSA has become a joke. Most people in this country consider airport security an object of derision. It’s hard to find someone who will take the job. They have someone with quite a serious intelligence and law enforcement and military background in Erroll Southers. And Jim DeMint, because he wants to, you know, mess over workers in this country, is preventing that guy from getting a vote. No one seriously believes that Southers isn’t qualified to take the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, I want to thank you for being with us, senior reporter with the Washington Independent. And we’ll link to your site at democracynow.org.

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