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Two Failed Airplane Plots, Two Reactions

Is President Obama taking more flack for the failed Detroit terror plot than President Bush did for the shoe bomber? Politico’s Josh Gernstein thinks so.

bush-obama-airplane-bombersEight years ago, a terrorist bomber’s attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner was thwarted by a group of passengers, an incident that revealed some gaping holes in airline security just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11. But it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.

That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday’s incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit.

[...]

Yet, the similarities between last Friday’s incident and the attempted shoe bombing in 2001 are striking.

This year’s came attack came on Christmas. The attempt eight years ago took place on December 22. Obama was on vacation in Hawaii when the suspect, Omar Abdulmutallab, allegedly used plastic explosives in his try to blow up the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. Bush was at Camp David when Reid used similar plastic explosives to try to blow up his Paris-to-Miami flight, which diverted to Boston after the incident.

Like the Obama White House, the Bush White House told reporters the president had been briefed on the incident and was following it closely. While the Obama White House issued a background statement through a senior administration official calling the incident an “attempted terrorist attack” on the same day it took place, the early official statements from Bush aides did not make the same explicit statement.

Bush did not address reporters about the Reid episode until December 28, after he had traveled from Camp David to his ranch in Texas.

Democrats do not appear to have criticized Bush over the delay. Many were wary of publicly clashing with the commander-in-chief, who was getting lofty approval ratings after what appeared to be a successful military campaign in Afghanistan. The media also seemed to have little interest in pressing Bush about the bombing, or the fact that the incident had revealed a previously unknown vulnerability in airplane security — that shoes could be used to hide chemicals or explosive devices.

I’ve previously defended Obama’s immediate reaction to the underwear bomber, including dismissing the idea that he should have ended his vacation.  And, while it’s been some time — and took place before I started blogging — I don’t recall having any particular issue with how Bush handled the shoe bomber.

But the two plots took place in very different contexts.

Reid’s plot was mere months after 9/11, during which time Bush was overseeing a radical revamp of airline security procedures, the creation of TSA, the forming of the Department of Homeland Security (all of which I vehemently opposed as both silly and unconstitutional) and launched a war in Afghanistan (which I supported).  So, not only was the public conditioned to think terrorist plots were normal but they were keenly aware that the president was handling the situation, even if they weren’t thrilled with how he was doing so.

Fast forward eight years.  We haven’t had a terrorist attempt aboard an aircraft since Reid’s comically failed attempt to ignite his shoes.  The public is complacent, correctly viewing airport security as a nuisance.  The new president has, thankfully, not had to demonstrate leadership in the wake of a terrorist attack on American soil.

And, yet, we’ve only had a couple of politicians trying to make hay over Obama’s handling of this.  And one of them’s Peter King, for goodness sakes.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    It’s a comparison of The Fonz to Richie Cunningham.

    Bush had been tested and was seen as trying to upgrade our defenses against global terrorism. This is Obama’s first time up to bat and we don’t even know if he can see the playing field much less the pitch. Like it or not, when there is a small body of work to judge you by the small stuff carries more weight.

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  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    There have been other air plane bomber attempts. They were just caught earlier (e.g. the UK attempt to smuggle the acid/explosives in liquid containers).

    There are at least two other major differences beyond those you pointed out.

    1 – The bomber was not known as a terrorist threat well before boarding the plane.

    2 – I don’t recall any Bush officials making similar asinine remarks as ‘the system worked’ when it was obvious that the solution was non-govermental.

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  3. The first thing that has struck me has been how people have misinterpreted the statistical evidence. Many of them look at the presence of a failed bomb as a failure of the system.

    One thing to think about is that a system that only lets non-functional bombs on board, is working, if barely.

    What we’re not seeing are the bombs that didn’t get on-board, or the bombs that weren’t tried because the security system looked too formidable.

    And of course it’s laughable that either President would have a significant impact on the nitty-gritty of passenger screening or no-fly lists. Talk about micromanagement.

    Finally … 80 grams equals 3 ounces. When we are talking about keeping 3 ounces off a jumbo jet, out of tons loaded … we have to understand that there is a baseline risk that can never be fully excluded. Most people probably want to believe that zero risk is achievable … but with those numbers it looks hard.

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  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Ask El Al how they do it. Obama was a community organizer who somehow got elected. Bush was a former Governor of a State, and a jet pilot who flew F102 Delta Daggers. Why would you seriously compare who is best at handling emergencies? Obama votes present. Quit it!

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  5. markm says:

    But the two plots took place in very different contexts.

    Zzzactly. Implementing new policies is a bit different than honing those in place. Apples and nanners.

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  6. The Other Ed says:

    Hey Cheney! STFU!

    Now that I have that off my chest, Cheney would do well to remember that the TSA and Intelligence procedures that failed were formulated under his watch.

    The Yemeni AQ members who were once in Gitmo and were involved in this attempt were released under his watch.

    The failure to succeed after 8 years in the GWOT was under his watch.

    So please Dick, get lost will ya?

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  7. Ugh says:

    Wake me up when terrorists manage to kill almost 3,000 americans on a single day on Obama’s watch, rather than lighting their own underwear on fire.

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  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Zels,

    Ask El Al how they do it.

    Massive, massive, MASSIVE government subsidies. You couldn’t use those security procedures and still operate at a profit. If America follows suit, we’d have to nationalize the airlines and expand airport security by about 50%. Is it worth nationalizing an entire industry and spending billions in taxpayer dollars to combat a miniscule threat? I don’t think so.

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  9. Quote of the Day: Obama Takes Republican Heat GOPers and Media Neglected to Direct at Bush on Similar Terrorism Incident…

    Our political Quote of the Day is the key part of a piece by Josh Gerstein in The Politico which notes that the Republicans and the news media are reacting to President Barack Obama’s delayed statement on the failed airplane bombing in way tota…

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  10. Zelsdorf Ragshaft VI says:

    But the two plots took place in very different contexts.

    One president was a capitalist freedom-loving america and the other was a socialist kenyan organizer who wants terrorism to succeed I know otheres here don’t see the truth but I do. Triumphs got it right we will only be safe when those who really love america can take security into our hands. This is what a PhD will get you as president. There is only one answer put a real american in charge. One who will keep our troops safe by sending them into Yemen.

    Also global warming isn’t real.

    Liberals.

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  11. anjin-san says:

    Bush had been tested

    Yea. His immediate reaction to 9.11 was to fly around the country on Air Force One looking for rabbit holes to hide in. Hardly inspiring…

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  12. The El Al comparisons always seem to ignore the relative size of the US vice Israel and the overall number of flights in question.

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  13. Drew says:

    Alex –

    Have you seen a credible explanation for why the explosive did not in fact explode? That seems to be a crucial aspect here.

    Before we start using words like “miniscule” or “non-functional bombs” I’d like to understand that. Otherwise I think we could have a huge problem here.

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  14. Triumph says:

    Reid’s comically failed attempt to ignite his shoes.

    Yeah, that was really funny.

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  15. Alex Knapp says:

    Drew,

    Because the chemical they used for the explosive is easy to slip past security, but really hard to detonate. You have to do it just right or it doesn’t work.

    As it was, the amount of explosive and its location makes it unlikely that the plane would have been brought down. The only certain death would have been Abdulmutallab. It probably wouldn’t have even punctured the fuselage.

    And I meant miniscule in the sense of “# of attempts vs. # of flights” in terms of the cost-benefit analysis of the massive expenditures it would take to get to El Al levels of security.

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  16. Drew says:

    Alex –

    What, precisely, does “just right” mean? The moment I heard about this I had the same reaction as DS in that this might have been a probative event…..on the way to just right.

    Second, initial reports indicated that the explosion could in fact have been sufficient to blow a hole in the plane. Do you have a counter citation? And could it have been sufficient to puncture the cockpit door, leaving two dead pilots?

    On your third point, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. If the explosive works (even just part of the time) the simplicity of this vs a 9/11 opertion is staggering. Send out 30 diaper dandies with a ticket in hand. You bring down 3, 5, 10 planes and the aviation system would grind to a halt. Wait 10 weeks, repeat.

    Methinks if the explosive/fuse system is viable we have a big problem.

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  17. anjin-san says:

    Before we start using words like “miniscule” or “non-functional bombs” I’d like to understand that. Otherwise I think we could have a huge problem here.

    Very true. This is a serious situation and not something we should make light of. The next guy might not be so inept, and then you have a planeload of dead people. We need complete threat and failure analysis of this event, and we need to not make assumptions that future attempts will be similarly flawed.

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  18. Pug says:

    Why would you seriously compare who is best at handling emergencies? Obama votes present.

    Bush handled that Katrina emergency very well, right Ragshaft?

    Let’s not forget two things: 1) no one died, fortunately, in the incident on Christmas Day, and 2) thousands were slaughtered on September 11th with the valiant Delta Daggers pilot in charge.

    For Republicans to be trying to make political hay from this incident is shameless, but not surprising of course. And Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol have reached new heights of despicableness.

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  19. Alex Knapp says:

    Drew,

    What, precisely, does “just right” mean? The moment I heard about this I had the same reaction as DS in that this might have been a probative event…..on the way to just right.

    PETN doesn’t even detonate when it’s on fire. It’s usually detonated with a blasting cap or blasting wire. There are chemicals you can use to detonate it (which is what he was trying to do), but they’re hard to synthesize and even harder to keep stable.

    Second, initial reports indicated that the explosion could in fact have been sufficient to blow a hole in the plane. Do you have a counter citation? And could it have been sufficient to puncture the cockpit door, leaving two dead pilots?

    It was enough to possibly puncture the plane–but not where it was. And even if it blew a hole in the plane, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone dies.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2240155/

    On your third point, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. If the explosive works (even just part of the time) the simplicity of this vs a 9/11 opertion is staggering. Send out 30 diaper dandies with a ticket in hand. You bring down 3, 5, 10 planes and the aviation system would grind to a halt. Wait 10 weeks, repeat.

    I think that the logistics of successfully doing that in the United States are beyond al-Qaeda’s current capabilities. For one, I just don’t think there are enough people capable of getting a U.S. visa that are willing to both willing to kill themselves AND be competent at what they’re doing.

    Of course, what this highlights is that we really need to spend a LOT more resources on human intelligence and data analysis. All of the pieces of information were there to red-flag Abdulmutallab, but we didn’t have the systems in place to act on it. That we don’t 8 years after 9/11 is just inconceivable. Instead of the stupid, counter-productive “no-fly” lists we should have much more sophisticated ways of flagging people where there’s evidence to warrant that they’re a threat.

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  20. FWIW, I think that 80g probably would have been enough to rupture the plane. It is after all a pressurized vessel built for minimum weight. It’s the pressure wave that matters.

    But again, 80g is not much. I think they say it in grams so that it sounds like more. It’s 3 ounces. Out of maybe 100,000 pounds of passengers and luggage.

    If that’s all it takes, I don’t really see an economic or practical way to make risks zero. What if the next guy has 200g in his gut? Fly naked and submit to an enema?

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  21. please rescue my non-spam message

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  22. tom p says:

    It’s a comparison of The Fonz to Richie Cunningham.
    Bush had been tested and was seen as trying to upgrade our defenses against global terrorism. Like it or not, when there is a small body of work to judge you by the small stuff carries more weight.

    So sorry JKB… but which is the Fonz and which is RC?

    Bush was tested, and 3,000 dead later found wanting. Six months later some doofus named Richard Reid tried to put on his dancing shoes and only succeeded in getting himself years of torture. Bush managed to upgrade our defenses form “incompetent” to “total incompetence” (flown international lately?)

    Yet you give him credit?

    This is Obama’s first time up to bat and we don’t even know if he can see the playing field much less the pitch.

    Yah… Bush saw the playing field, got tired of swinging at the same old pitches (could not hit any of them very far, but… “HEY! This is boring.” and went looking for a new game.

    So give me a break. Neither Obama nor Bush are (or were) in control of the minutae of airline security, and neither should get credit or blame when a “new” threat raises it’s ugly head…. only for the response (and I do not mean the obligatory 3-6 day “I’m on vacation press conference”) I mean substantive responses.

    If full body scans become as onerous, time consuming, and so patently a waste of time as removing ones shoes, blame Obama.

    PS:

    PETN doesn’t even detonate when it’s on fire. It’s usually detonated with a blasting cap or blasting wire. There are chemicals you can use to detonate it (which is what he was trying to do), but they’re hard to synthesize and even harder to keep stable.

    Details Alex, details… my terrorists notebook is lacking (firmly tongue in cheek, I am sure if I really wanted to know, I could)

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  23. Alex Knapp says:

    Details Alex, details… my terrorists notebook is lacking (firmly tongue in cheek, I am sure if I really wanted to know, I could)

    I picked up the detail on blasting caps from the New York Times. They wouldn’t specify what chemicals you’d put in a syringe. I’m pretty sure I could figure it out, but prudence dictates that I’m better off not doing so.

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