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Republican Fear Junkies Try To Declare Victory And Get Out

Over the weekend, President Obama confirmed that the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt of Northwest Flight 253 was the work of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Within days, the Administration has offered to fund a counter-terrorism effort in Yemen, has shut its embassy in the country while pending threats are checked, has reviewed terror watch list and intelligence policies, and has put in place new airline screening measures, particularly with respect to international travelers and passengers from “terror-prone” countries.

Mark Hosenball tried to make news with a story about a pre-Christmas briefing President Obama received about terror threats to the homeland, but that briefing was generic and not based on specific threat information. You could make an argument that the underwear bombing technique was known to Administration counter-terrorism officials, but there was not specific information about a specific attack in the system that failed to filter up through the proper channels.

(John) Brennan cited “a number of streams of information” — the 23-year-old suspect’s name was known to intelligence officials, his father had passed along his concern about the son’s increasing radicalization — and “little snippets” from intelligence channels. “But there was nothing that brought it all together.”

“In this one instance, the system didn’t work. There were some human errors. There were some lapses. We need to strengthen it. But day in and day out, the successes are there.”

The only way to take the type of information floating around about Abdulmutallab and turn it into an action item that would have kept him off of Northwest 253 would be through a change of policy that would keep millions of people out of the United States, including mostly false positives. Even full-body scanners would not allay every security threat associated with freedom of movement in an open society. In fact, this Wall Street Journal op-ed makes several good points along those lines:

Considering the ease with which a suicide bomber could stroll into a Starbucks in any American city and kill a dozen people, you have to wonder at al Qaeda’s obsession with targeting commercial airliners.

If 19 terrorists (the number who carried out the 9/11 attacks) each blew himself up at one- or two-week intervals in a shopping mall or a movie theater, America likely would become a seething nation of paranoid shut-ins. That it hasn’t happened tells you something: Al Qaeda doesn’t have a ready supply of competent suicide bombers, domestic or imported, to carry off serious attacks. That it continues to pour what little resources it can command into lame airliner attacks, like shoe bomber Richard Reid’s failed attempt to blow himself up in 2001 and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt on Christmas Day, tells you something else:

Al Qaeda may be incapacitated, but its leaders aren’t dumb. So what if their hapless messengers only embarrass themselves and burn their legs? Al Qaeda can still count on the sizeable damage we will inflict on ourselves through an airport security apparatus that specializes in expensive political displays of barn-door closing that seldom have any real security payoff.

This is not to say that intelligence filtering shouldn’t be improved, but there simply is no smoking gun, and amazingly enough, people are coming around to recognize that. That makes it so interesting that Republicans, who have overhyped and terrorized the public for years for electoral gain, are no longer finding this a hill to die on. The trend away from paranoia among elite opinion-makers has actually pushed them to claim instead that Obama is following all of their policies, the last bastion of a politician who has nothing to add to the discussion.

A day after he said the president was “downplaying” the subject, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Barack Obama is now using “the right approach” in fighting terror […]

“Instead of focusing on the blame right now, the president seems to be on the right approach,” he said on MSNBC. “He’s recognizing we’ve got a terror problem. What he is doing in Yemen is good.”

Republicans want to climb off of a losing perch. Their persistence to try and recreate America circa 2002 generated a backlash, and too many people were either not paying attention over the holidays or not ready to embrace an all-knowing security and counter-terrorism apparatus that is not only impractical but unrealizable. The “Obama agrees with me” effort is amusing, but I’ll allow such nonsense rather than another round of rule by fear.

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David Dayen

David Dayen