Is Janet Napolitano to blame for Flight 253 security failure?

Republicans have focused blame for the security failures of Northwest Flight 253 on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. But there are other reasons that many conservatives are dissatisfied with her.

William B. Plowman/NBC Newswire/AP
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appears on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.

In the rush to fix blame for a failure to prevent last week’s attack on Northwest Flight 253, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano quickly emerged as the Obama administration’s designated lightning rod.

She has, in one important respect, brought the criticism upon herself. On the Sunday talk shows days after the incident, she said that "the system worked" – an assertion that President Obama himself contradicted two days later in calling the incident a "systematic failure."

Yet, in many respects, the statement by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana that the blame for allowing a bomber to board a Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam "rests solely on the shoulders of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano” is a curious.

It was Nigerian and Dutch officials who were responsible for airport checkpoints. It was the US State Department that did not not revoke the multiple-entry visa of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian with suspected ties to terrorism. And it was the job of the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, to make sure there was adequate sharing of intelligence among agencies.

Immigration reform in the background

Yet for some groups, Napolitano makes for an especially tempting target. As the standard-bearer for the Obama administration's desire to reform national immigration policy, she was a lightning rod before Mr. Abdulmutallab ever boarded a plane for Detroit. The prospect of damaging her political credibility – if not bringing her down entirely – would, by extension, be a significant victory against Obama's immigration policy.

Moreover, Napolitano has presided over a department that has stoked fears of domestic extremist activity from conservatives and libertarians dissatisfied with Mr. Obama's election. "The historical election of an African-American president and the prospect of policy changes are proving to be a driving force for right-wing extremist recruitment and radicalization," a department report dated April 7 read.

Napolitano had to apologize because the report suggested that veterans could be particularly prone to radicalization, an assertion that veterans' groups vehemently protested.

"Janet Napolitano has been busy trying to pass amnesty for illegal aliens and casting suspicion on American citizens who are fed up with government corruption and failures, instead of doing the job of protecting Americans against terrorist threats," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC).

Congress to turn up the heat

This scrutiny will move to congressional hearing rooms next month, as at least four panels prepare oversight hearings about security failures that led to the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack.

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced Thursday that it was launching an investigation, effective immediately, with a hearing on Jan. 21.

“The Christmas Day incident revealed some serious failures in our nation’s system of security,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the panel, echoing Obama’s call on Tuesday for an investigation of the “mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security.”

The ranking Republican on the intelligence panel, Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, called for a close look at personal accountability in this case. "Somebody screwed up big time, that plane would have gone down if the suicide bomber was more competent or the passengers and crew were less heroic," he said in a joint statement with Senator Feinstein Thursday.

'A convenient scapegoat'

“Secretary Napolitano can be a convenient scapegoat both for President Obama and for the Republicans – and her remarks [on Sunday] just added fuel to the fire,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, who released a new book this week on national security policy, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security – From World War II to the War on Terrorism."

“For Obama, the focus on Napolitano takes attention away from the rest of the administration. For Republicans, it’s a way to avoid discussing the homeland security system which was put into place under Republicans,” he adds.

The public might accept a Napolitano rebuke or resignation as sufficient action, Professor Zelizer says. “Even for the public, there’s something about a person who made a mistake that’s more satisfying than looking more broadly at what’s gone wrong in the system: If it’s just one person who made a mistake, you can replace or reprimand that person, but if the system is the problem, it’s a lot harder.”


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