A new Newsweek report suggests that the terrorism issue which has been pitchforked into the headlines, partisan talk radio and partisan weblogs will be pitchforked even further into prominence through 2010 — all the way to election day: according to the newsmagazine, President Barack Obama got a pre-Christmas briefing “about possible holiday-period terrorist threats against the US.”
The Newsweek report– based on original reporting and not rehashed wire service copy — gives these details:
The briefing was centered on a written report, produced by US intelligence agencies, entitled “Key Homeland Threats”, a senior US official said.
The senior Administration official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that nowhere in this document was there any mention of Yemen, whose Al-Qaeda affiliate is now believed to have been behind the unsuccessful Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a transatlantic airliner with a bomb hidden in his underpants. However, the official declined to disclose any other information about the substance of the briefing, including what kind of specific warnings, if any, the President was given about possibly holiday attacks and whether Yemen came up during oral discussions.
According to the senior official, the holiday threat briefing, one in a series of regularly-scheduled sessions with top counter-terrorism officials, was held in the White House Situation Room on December 22. Present were representatives of agencies involved in counter-terrorism policy and operations, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller. The CIA and National Intelligence Directors Office were represented by deputy agency heads: CIA deputy director Steven Kappes, and David Gompert, the principal deputy to National Intelligence Czar Dennis Blair. Also present was Michael Leiter, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, a unit of the Intelligence Czar’s office which was created after 9/11 to ensure that intelligence reporting about possible terrorist plots was shared quickly among all US agencies who might have some capability to do something about it.
The magazine, attributing these tidbits to this unnamed senior official, said that these intelligence strands pointed to some kind of plot starting in Pakistan but no where did it indicate anything emanating from Yemen.
This will mean little in America’s 24/7 partisan battle: Republicans will seize on it, generalize it and say Obama was asleep at the switch, Democrats will insist that was not the case and each side will press its (prepackaged) response. Each side has its own version of a “noise machine,” although the mix composing the machines vary. The truth will probably emerge more from mainstream media reporting over the next few weeks, versus predictable op-ed or new media punditry.
Congressional hearings may shed some light on it but those will be colored by political partisan posturing, attack mode (GOP) and CYPA (Cover Your Partisan…. Democrats). GOPers will likely argue the Obama administration’s response/nonresponse to pre-Christmas intelligenc means that the Bush administration’s response to pre-911 info is therefore neutralized by the Obama response or argue Bush administration response didn’t matter as much (tune in talk radio and remember Psychic Joe said it here first).
Newsweek’s report also highlights the upcoming political skirmish over this tidbit:
Asked about what kind of intelligence reporting was circulated to senior officials about possibly holiday period attacks before the failed underpants attack, a US intelligence official, who also asked for anonymity, explained: “As everybody knows, terrorists often speak in coded language, especially when they think their communications might be intercepted. There was no clear discussion of an attack, on Christmas or any other time, in the Middle East or anywhere else. But as veiled as the message was, it was spotted, processed, analyzed, and presented to senior policymakers as a warning sign-however vague-of a holiday attack. While this was handled properly, there were, to put it mildly, virtually no details at all. That happens.” When Newsweek asked a senior Administration official about this characterization of a warning which was passed to White House policymakers, and whether it tracked what was presented at the December 22 Presidential briefing, the official would not comment.
Presidential aides are concerned that Obama will somehow be unfairly accused of dropping the ball on the fight against terrorist in Yemen — a country where, in fact, the evidence suggests Obama, as early as last summer, ordered a significant increase in US intelligence activity. In the weeks before the Christmas attacks, several US officials have told Newsweek, Obama authorized a major expansion in US intelligence, military and material support to Yemen’s government — an escalation which some officials acknowledge could be characterized as a new covert war. But Obama’s public and private actions in expanding counter-terrorism operations in Yemen may not help him avoid answering further questions about what intelligence agencies told him — and didn’t tell him — about possible threats to the US homeland in the days and weeks before the alleged underpants bomber boarded his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Meanwhile, in his weekly radio address, Obama tied the attempted attack to Al Qaeda and answered Vice President Dick Cheney:
President Obama declared for the first time on Saturday that a branch of Al Qaeda based in Yemen sponsored the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an American passenger jet, and he vowed that those behind the failed attack “will be held to account.”
In his first radio and Internet address of the new year, Mr. Obama also rebutted attacks by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans who since the incident have accused him of not recognizing that the struggle against terrorists is a war. Mr. Obama said he was well aware that “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”
The president’s speech, taped from Hawaii where he is nearing the end of a 10-day holiday vacation, was the third time he has publicly addressed the failed attack on Northwest Flight 253 bound for Detroit on Dec. 25. Mr. Obama noted that he has received preliminary reports about the incident but gave no more details about how a Nigerian man with known radical views was allowed to board a flight to the United States with explosives in his underwear.
Mr. Obama’s comments about the involvement of Al Qaeda, however, were the most direct to date by the highest reaches of the American government. Administration officials and intelligence analysts previously had said they were increasingly confident that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch calls itself, was involved, as it claimed.
But the president until now had shied away from referencing that until analysts were further along in their assessment of the group’s activities and its ties to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with attempting to blow up the airliner.
“We’re learning more about the suspect,” Mr. Obama said in the Saturday address. “We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies. It appears that he joined an affiliate of Al Qaeda and that this group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”
This attempted attack and the administration’s response to it is of huge political import. For years Democrats were outmaneuvered on the issue of national security by Republicans, who successfully painted a picture of them as either weak or incompetent. When Obama won in 2008 polls indicated that the Democrats had made great strides in neutralizing this issue. These developments will negate many of these strides as the GOP takes the national security ball and runs with it as they accuse Obama and the Democrats of dropping it. And the Democrats will scramble to convince voters to have the same faith in the Demmies on the issue as they did in 2008.
To the victor goes the political spoils.
But the bigger issue will be: can BOTH parties learn from the pre-911 and pre-Christmas ball dropping so that in the future terrorists don’t score big with bang?
The BBC offers THIS PROFILE of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.