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Administration, Democrats Gently Dipping Their Toes In Terrorism Debate

Avi Zenilman, filling in at the Plum Line, has written a series of good posts about the Democrats’ failure to engage the debate around the failed Christmas Day “underpants bomber” attack. This has ceded the field to Republicans making no secret of their political aims, who have hammered the President almost from the moment that the foiled attack was revealed.

After days of wishing and hoping this would go away, Democrats are striding back into the arena, however gently. Here’s NSC Chief of Staff Denis McDonough talking about the politicized hold on TSA Administrator nominee Erroll Southers:

MR. McDONOUGH: As it relates to the review on detection capacity, that will be handled out of the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Transportation Security Administration.

Q But you don’t have a TSA director.

MR. McDONOUGH: That is correct, we have a very able acting TSA Administrator. But the —

Q You don’t feel like you — you guys feel like (inaudible)?

MR. McDONOUGH: Well, I’d say two things. One, I think that we have a very able team of career professionals at TSA. We have a very able team in the Department of Homeland Security generally. But I think it’s fair to say that the President believes — the President is eager to have his TSA head on the job.

Not exactly “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” kind of stuff, but certainly willing to actually mention that the President wants his nominees to be confirmed, and in public and everything.

More forcefully, two House Democrats have started to speak up as well. I don’t think the frame that Hotline puts on this, “Dems Blame Bush Admin For Terror Attempt,” is accurate. They’re merely stating the facts:

“In general, we are facing the consequences of the Bush administration’s failures to deal with al Qaeda,” Van Hollen told Hotline OnCall. “The Republicans have no business in pointing fingers at the Obama administration on terrorism and national security.”

“The Obama administration has been much more aggressive about going after al Qaeda than the Bush administration, which turned its focus from al Qaeda to Iraq,” he added. The Obama admin has “been on the offense in places where the Bush administration had taken its eye off the ball.”

Meanwhile, Massa has taken on ex-VP Dick Cheney, who he says is directly responsible for releasing the top al Qaeda figures in Yemen who aided and trained the Nigerian-born suspect.

“I would remind the American public that the apparent leaders of the al Qaeda cell in Yemen were 2 terrorists who were released by Vice President Cheney in secret. I think there’s a level of accountability that has to be levied personally on the vice president,” Massa said in an interview. “He is personally responsible for that.”

Massa and Van Hollen both mentioned Jim DeMint’s hold on TSA Administrator Erroll Southers, too, with Massa saying “He should be held personally accountable for that incredible act of partisan politics that placed so many Americans at risk.”

This is at least a show of strength, answering days’ worth of charges from the GOP. Admittedly, the fact that the Obama Administration is employing many of the same national security and anti-terror strategies as the Bush Administration makes it hard to make any clean critique. But from a political standpoint, it’s suicidal to give up so much ground on terrorism issues to a party which has been completely wrong on them, and isn’t willing to face up to their own mistakes.

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David Dayen

David Dayen