In the days that followed a foiled attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253, the Obama White House clearly thought that it could bluff its way past the near disaster.
Two days after the event, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano contended that "the system worked." The next day, in prepared remarks, President Obama referred to suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an "isolated extremist" -- despite his apparent ties to al-Qaida in Yemen. Later, Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan asserted that there was "no smoking gun" that should have prevented Abdulmutallab's entry into America -- when everyone knew his father went to a U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn officials about his son's radicalization.
On Thursday, however, Obama hit the right note. In releasing a swift review of what went wrong and suggesting corrective actions, Obama did something President George W. Bush usually failed to do -- he appeared ready to sort through the weeds and dig through mistakes to correct problems quickly.
Obama's change of language was noteworthy; he acknowledged that "a known terrorist" should not have been allowed to board a Detroit-bound plane. He announced, "We are at war with al-Qaida."
To win a war, you have to know your enemy. Thus, it's important that the administration stopped downplaying any link between Abdulmutallab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula member Anwar al-Awlaki, who also has been tied with accused Fort Hood killer Maj. Nidal Hasan. The White House review stipulated that the U.S. government "had sufficient information to have uncovered … and potentially disrupt" the planned Christmas attack, but failed.
At a press conference, Brennan said, "I told the president today, I let him down. I told him I will do better." Actually, Brennan let the American people down. Some critics are calling for Obama to fire someone -- be it an anonymous intelligence official or someone big enough to be on the Sunday talk shows -- as canning someone, they argue, would demonstrate that the president truly believes in accountability.
That's the sort of thing that is easy to say from the outside, where it is not necessary to acknowledge that many of these same operatives also may have stopped other attacks.