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.
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.
If I had to place a bet, I'd put my money on Napolitano being the first big-name casualty in the Obama administration. But really, what would Obama gain by firing her now? His reward would be a week of stories hitting him for hiring her, followed by a week of stories on potential picks -- a few of whom would be pilloried and destroyed -- followed by grueling confirmation hearings, during which the next, er, victim might or might not survive attacks from the left and right.
In the meantime, Obama has shown himself willing to swing with the pendulum on the issue of Guantanamo detainees. When Obama was a mere senator, it was easy for him to take potshots at President George W. Bush and to promise to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But now, as president, Obama has to preside over the consequences of his free-the-detainees rhetoric.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is against Gitmo, but that did not stop her from calling on Obama to halt the release of some 90 Yemeni detainees. Sunday, Brennan said the government would release Yemeni detainees, but on Tuesday, Obama changed course.
Earlier this week, Obama called Guantanamo Bay "a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaida." It turns out, releasing Gitmo detainees is a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaida.