Spinning What Didn’t Actually Happen

For Sherlock Holmes it was the dog that didn’t bark in the night:

Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

Holmes solved the mystery. What should have happened didn’t happen. So all you had to do was understand why – case closed.

And now we have the airplane that didn’t blow up over Detroit on Christmas Day, and everyone wants to be Holmes. This proves something, although what it proves depends on who you ask:

Republicans have wasted no time in attacking Democrats on intelligence and screening failures leading up to the failed Christmas Day bombing of Flight 253 – a significant departure from the calibrated, less partisan responses that have followed other recent terrorist activity.

The strategy – coming as the Republican leadership seeks to exploit Democratic weaknesses heading into the 2010 midterms – is in many ways a natural for a party that views protecting the US homeland as its ideological raison d’etre and electoral franchise.

Of course there was “the stumbling initial response of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who spent Monday retracting her Sunday claim that ‘the system worked’ in the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s near takedown of a jet ferrying nearly 300 people from Amsterdam to Detroit.”

Well yeah, that was dumb. But the congressman from Michigan, Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, took it up a notch – “In the past six weeks, you’ve had the Fort Hood attack, the DC Five and now the attempted attack on the plane in Detroit … and they all underscored the clear philosophical difference between the administration and us.” And he added this – “I think Secretary Napolitano and the rest of the Obama administration view their role as law enforcement, first responders dealing with the aftermath of an attack, and we believe in a forward-looking approach to stopping these attacks before they happen.”

Just how are they going to do that? Senator Jim DeMint told Fox News that the Christmas attack proved President Obama’s talk-to-your-enemies approach might actually be encouraging terrorists. So the idea is not to talk to anyone.

The only response was this:

A White House spokesman says the administration wants to avoid making the national security and terrorism a partisan issue.

“The president doesn’t think we should play politics with issues like these. He hasn’t. His response has been fact-based and appropriate and will continue to be as such,” said deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton.

But early Monday morning the House Republican Conference blasted an email with the views of a half-dozen GOP lawmakers:

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the top Homeland Security Committee Republican, criticized the Obama administration for not going public more quickly to reassure Americans that the skies are safe.

Hoekstra, for his part, blamed the president for “downplaying” the threat of terrorism and slammed the White House for failing to provide detailed bipartisan briefings.

This is the end of the world and we should be very, very frightened.

But as Kevin Drum points out, that’s getting old:

Here’s the last two weeks in a nutshell:

Conservative response to a guy setting his underwear on fire on an airplane: It’s Obama’s fault! We should declare war on Yemen! We should stop allowing Muslims on our airplanes! We need to connect the dots! We’re all going to die!

Conservative response to providing healthcare to 30 million Americans: It’s socialism! It’s going to bankrupt America! It’s Chicago thug politics! It’s going to kill grandma! It’s going to turn our healthcare system into an abattoir!

Conservative response to regulating the financial industry that almost destroyed America’s banking system: It’s Marxism! It’s going to cause hyperinflation! It’s Uncle Sam’s jackboot on the commerce of the country! It’s the end of innovation! Buy gold!

Conservative response to catastrophic climate change: It’s a hoax from the liberal media. Pay no attention to it.

So it doesn’t matter that the dog didn’t bark in the night. It could have. And it doesn’t matter that this fellow’s magic underwear fizzled. The general idea was that this was just like Bush blowing off responding to Hurricane Karina and the end of New Orleans and the hundreds of bodies floating in the murky water – Bush did a flyover three days after the storm, and Obama played golf in Hawaii. What about all the dead in Detroit? Or it was like Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat to the kids the morning of 9/11 – instead of springing into action. This was exactly the same thing, except nothing happened. The dog didn’t bark.

But Obama finally made a statement:

President Barack Obama on Monday vowed to use “every element of our national power” to keep Americans safe and said the failed Christmas Day plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner was “a serious reminder” of the need to continually adapt security measures against changing terrorist threats.

No war with Yemen? No new Patriot Act? No call for a return to a policy of kidnapping and torture like in the Bush years?

No, just dealing with the actual problems:

But even as Obama spoke, word came that a State Department warning had failed to trigger an effort to revoke the alleged attacker’s visa. And officials in Yemen confirmed that the would-be bomber had been living in that country, where terrorist elements quickly sought to take credit for his actions.

That needs to be looked into, and there was the inevitable:

The incident prompted stiffer airport boarding measures and authorities warned holiday travelers to expect extra delays as they return home this week and beyond.

Of course that was inevitable, as nothing happened, but it might have happened. But see Christopher Hitchens with Flying High:

Why are we so bad at detecting the guilty, and so good at collective punishment of the innocent?

The answer to the first question is: Because we can’t – or won’t. The answer to the second question is: Because we can. The fault here is not just with our endlessly incompetent security services, who give the benefit of the doubt to people who should have been arrested long ago or at least had their visas and travel rights revoked. It is also with a public opinion that sheepishly bleats to be made to “feel safe.” The demand to satisfy that sad illusion can be met with relative ease if you pay enough people to stand around and stare significantly at the citizens’ toothpaste. My impression as a frequent traveler is that intelligent Americans fail to protest at this inanity in case it is they who attract attention and end up on a no-fly list instead. Perfect.

Hitchens goes on to argue that nobody in authority “thinks us grown-up enough” to be told the truth:

We had better get used to being the civilians who are under a relentless and planned assault from the pledged supporters of a wicked theocratic ideology. These people will kill themselves to attack hotels, weddings, buses, subways, cinemas, and trains. They consider Jews, Christians, Hindus, women, homosexuals, and dissident Muslims (to give only the main instances) to be divinely mandated slaughter victims. Our civil aviation is only the most psychologically frightening symbol of a plethora of potential targets. The future murderers will generally not be from refugee camps or slums (though they are being indoctrinated every day in our prisons); they will frequently be from educated backgrounds, and they will often not be from overseas at all. They are already in our suburbs and even in our military. We can expect to take casualties. The battle will go on for the rest of our lives.

Of course the Republicans argue that’s not true at all – let them run things again, and a few more wars and a lot of kidnapping and torture will fix things right up.

And you know they’re serious, given how they vote on funding anything to stop these things from happening before they happen, even if they don’t happen, but could have. After all, consider this:

Republicans have cast votes against the key TSA funding measure, the 2010 appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security contained, which included funding for the TSA, including for explosives detection systems and other aviation security measures. In the June 24 vote in the House, leading Republicans including John Boehner, Pete Hoekstra, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan voted against the bill, amid a procedural dispute over the appropriations process, a Democrat points out. A full 108 Republicans voted against the conference version, including Boehner, Hoekstra, Pence, Michelle Bachmann, Marsha Blackburn, Darrell Issa, and Joe Wilson.

The conference bill included more than $4 billion for “screening operations,” including $1.1 billion in funding for explosives detection systems, including $778 million for buying and installing the systems.

That’s curious, as is this:

An attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day would be all-consuming for the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration – if there was one.

The post remains vacant because Sen. Jim DeMint, R- SC, has held up President Barack Obama’s nominee in opposition to the prospect of TSA workers joining a labor union.

As al Qaida claimed responsibility Monday for the thwarted attack and President Barack Obama made a public statement about it, Democrats urged DeMint to drop his objection and allow quick confirmation of nominee Erroll Southers, a counterterrorism expert, when the Senate reconvenes in three weeks.

But DeMint won’t give in – maybe because Southers is a bit too Hollywood for his taste. Southers is a former FBI special agent, and the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence. He also is the associate director of the USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, and he served as a deputy director of homeland security for our Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former movie star. Two Senate committees have given Southers their okay, and an acting administrator is in place pending his confirmation. But it has been ages.

Of course the real issue is unions:

DeMint said in a statement that the attempted attack “is a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA.” He wants Southers to clarify his stand on unionizing the TSA, a shift that Democrats support.

Without collective bargaining, DeMint said, the TSA has “flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack.”

If organized labor got involved, DeMint said, union bosses would have the power “to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports.”

DeMint is sure they’d do that, as all unions are just greedy bastards – all they want to do is extort money from the noble capitalists who make this country what it is – or something like that. And he won’t budge, not that it matters:

DeMint’s objection creates a procedural hurdle that could take three days of debate and test votes to overcome, or could potentially be limited if Democrats offered DeMint a compromise. No one was taking conciliatory stance on Monday, however.

So it is better that the next guy with magic exploding underwear kills hundreds of people, as the TSA had no head – as long as we keep the workers from joining a union and saying that unless they get lots of money and super-benefits and anything else that strikes their fancy they’ll make sure thousands and thousands of Americans die. Well, they might. You never know. And as for voting down the funding for the screening equipment – fiscal restraint is more important than life itself, or something. It gets confusing.

And as for the Yemen thing, it seems Dick Cheney and crew were the ones who put the American people at risk:

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November, 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

American officials agreed to send the two terrorists from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia where they entered into an “art therapy rehabilitation program” and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.

It seems that art therapy didn’t work. And you remember what Cheney had to say a few weeks after Obama took office:

When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.

The folks at Fox News will probably not mention the art therapy that the Bush administration approved, and the date the two bad guys were sent home from Gitmo. But you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see what happened.

And Joan Walsh argues that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and no need to get all stupid about it:

The fact is, blundering the interpretation of genuine terror data, and spinning the blunders after any scary threat, is a bipartisan game. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have perfect records when it comes to keeping us safe. But the GOP is proving itself far more willing than Democrats to play politics after a terror incident, which is a shame, because it means that political ass-covering may drain energy that ought to go to national security. DeMint had the gall to blame the administration: Its allegedly “soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo – these things are not going to appease the terrorists,” he said. “They’re going to keep coming after us,” DeMint told Fox News, “and we can’t have politics as usual in Washington, and I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got right now with airport security.”

Even I think Obama should have spoken publicly about the incident earlier than today, but I’m relieved that, unlike press secretary Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the president didn’t pretend that the security system “worked” to thwart the Christmas Day bombing attempt. He promised a review of the watch-list system, in the wake of news that Abdulmutallab’s father had warned U.S. and British officials of his son’s radicalization. The British were so concerned they denied him a visa and put him on their no-fly list. In the U.S., the 23-year-old Nigerian merely went on a watch list with half a million other names, so officials could investigate whether any future student visa requests could be denied. It’s important to get to the bottom of why the U.S. and British responses to the information were so different.

But that’s not very exciting. And if you’re the party out of power, useless to you. And the airplane didn’t blow up. The dog didn’t bark. Now what? What can you prove?

There’s nothing to prove, of course – just problems to solve. And Sherlock Holmes was entirely fictional, as you know.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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