Napolitano’s ‘The System Worked’ Quote

An aside in my post this morning defending President Obama from charges he took inadequate measures to prevent the attempted Detroit bombing has caused John Cole some distress.

I observed that, “There’s room to criticize the administration’s response to the crisis, most notably DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s idiotic insistence that “the system worked.” John retorts:

Here is Janet Napolitano’s exact quote:

    Once this incident occurred, everything went according to clockwork, not only sharing throughout the air industry, but also sharing with state and local law enforcement. Products were going out on Christmas Day, they went out yesterday, and also to the industry to make sure that the traveling public remains safe. I would leave you with that message. The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures, in light of this incident, but, again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.

Tell me how anything she said there is controversial or wrong or “idiotic.” She isn’t in charge of the CIA. Or the FBI. Or Schiphol airport. Or the NCTC.

Napolitano’s only mistake is giving the GOP an easily repeated lie/talking point, not for saying anything wrong. And for the record, you don’t even need to do anything to let the GOP’s bullshit factory come up with an easily repeated lie or talking point- these are the folks who have managed to turn ACORN into SPECTRE and end of life counseling into death panels.

Not having seen the original quote in other than the headline aftermath, I was initially concerned that I’d fallen for a talking point that had become a blog meme.  After some research, it’s clear that I hadn’t.

John’s quote above is from Napolitano’s appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”   

The controversial quote, though, comes from her appearance the same morning on CNN’s “State of the Union.” You can see the video in full at Politico which, alas, does not make it embeddable. The transcript makes it clear that she repeatedly went with the “system worked” mantra.

NAPOLITANO: What we are focused on is making sure that the air environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And one thing I’d like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated.

So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly.

CROWLEY: Well, it seems as though the reason this plane did not explode is that the explosion failed and then you had some quick passengers who jumped on him when he lit this fire. So let me ask you about how he could have gotten on the plane, with this substance, the PETN. I mean, we get on, you can’t have more than 3.4 ounces of toothpaste and you can’t have more than 3.4 ounces of anything in a little bag, and so I think people are thinking, so how does he get on with an explosive? How does that get past security?

NAPOLITANO: Well, we are asking the same questions, looking at what happened in Amsterdam as he transferred flights to a flight that was U.S.-bound. We have already been working with the airport and airline authorities there to see what kind of screening, screening equipment was used. We have no suggestion that he was improperly screened, but we want to go through and see. We’re always …

CROWLEY: I’m sorry, but if he was not improperly screened or properly screened, and yet you want Americans to feel safe on the planes, and so if it was properly screened and he got on anyway with that, it doesn’t feel that safe.

NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, it should. This was one individual literally of thousands that fly and thousands of flights every year. And he was stopped before any damage could be done. And now the forensics are analyzing, well, what actually could have been done with whatever substance he had and whatever amount. Those are all undetermined issues right now. And then we will go back and see about that technology, about that screening, just as we will go back at the president’s request and look at how we put people on different types of watch lists. Those are things that had been in place for many years. They have been the procedures that we have utilized.

And again, once this incident occurred, what I really think deserves attention is everybody responded quickly, effectively, without panicking and shutting down the airline systems or air travel. What we did is dealt with the incident, put out additional security measures both at airports here and abroad, and made sure that the flights that were in the air were indeed safe.

This was just ridiculously ham-handed.  Crowley, no right wing operative, was clearly flummoxed by Napolitano’s initial characterization and gave her repeated opportunities to walk it back, which she flubbed in each instance.   Finally, at the end of the exchange, she puts the emphasis on the timing:  After the incident, the response was appropriate.

It was a bad interview.  One that she walked back soon enough.  And she’s right that proper reaction in the aftermath — including doing investigations to see what holes in the system need plugging — is the main issue.  I’m not calling for her to be fired.  But there’s no need to pretend she didn’t flub the interview.

FILED UNDER: Media, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    Given the fact that Obama appointed this ditz to the most important position in government, he must be impeached.

    This willful incompetence is beyond reproach.

  2. andrew says:

    John Cole being intellectually dishonest? I’m shocked.

  3. Sirkowski says:

    That’s weak.

    That quote STILL says the system worked AFTER the attack.

    C’mon, you fell for that spin, hard.

  4. sgwhiteinfl says:

    Here is the part you curiously didn’t bold that was a part of her initial response.

    So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly.

    You can look back up at your own block quote, its right there in the last line of her initial response

    How is this any different than what she reiterated in her subsequent response to Crowley? Just because Crowley misunderstood what Napolitano clearly said doesn’t mean Napolitano was wrong.

    I know people have a reluctance to admit they are wrong, but it seems you are going to comical lengths at this point.

  5. JKB says:

    The only part of the system that worked was the militia after all the national security, homeland security and transportation security failed. In the end, it took a private citizen to take action to prevent this disaster, i.e., the line of last defense.

    Oh sure, after 8 years of planning and training developed by the former administration, the reaction after the fact was more nuanced and measured. Because we had the people in place to assess and make decisions based on scenario planning, long before one of the politicals could interfere.

    But all this really show is the Nepolitano shouldn’t be let out in public without supervision. Unfortunately, the list of Obama officials who need adult supervision is growing when the criteria for their positions should be “able to work without direct supervision.”

  6. Zuzu says:

    Sorry, your post is still off-base.

    Everything about Napolitano’s comment to Crowley was about the response to the incident.

    Sorry it was too wordy for you, but the fact remains she said nothing to lead anyone to believe she was talking about anything but the response.

  7. anjin-san says:

    JKB…

    Someone did an interview that was less than great. Try not to wet yourself. We saw how good the “adult supervision” was under Bush. “Your doing a great job, Brownie” “We know they have them, and we know where they are” “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

    I could go on, buy why relive all that bad history…

  8. anjin-san says:

    The only part of the system … it took a private citizen to take action to prevent this disaster, i.e., the line of last defense.

    Actually, the hero of flight 253 is Jasper Schuringa, A Dutch national (you know, one of those Euro-weenies the right has so much contempt for), not a member of some militia that exists in the fantasies of tea baggers.

  9. Wayne says:

    According to Obama and his supporters “The Buck Stops with Bush”.

    She got caught in her own political spin. IMO she tried to put in clever nuance parameter to make it sound like they didn’t miss up. Most recognize she was trying to be slick and call her on it. At first she just dug in deeper.

    She like Obama and his administration are unwilling to take any responsibility for something bad. If she would have simply said they screw up before the attack but at least the response seem to work properly, no big deal but it they won’t take blame. As for saying it was procedures used from past year is lame. Security and tactics are in constant motion. It is their responsibilities to constantly change and update procedures to keep the enemy off balance.

    According to Obama and his supporters “The Buck Stops with Bush”.

  10. Wayne says:

    “but the fact remains she said nothing to lead anyone to believe she was talking about anything but the response”

    Except all the questions were about the attack and what happen before not what the response was.

  11. anjin-san says:

    but it they won’t take blame

    I am curious. When exactly did Cheny & Bush “take the blame” for 9.11, a successful terrorist attack that murdered thousands of Americans on their watch?

    After all, what we are discussing here is a failed terrorist attack that killed no one. A serious matter to be sure, but hardly cause for the hysteria we are seeing from the right.

  12. laurie says:

    As I see it, her focus on the effective response after the fact made for a very bed interview AND this bad interview has been widely repeated out of context to make it appear even worse. Even people paying attention, such as James, were misled, though I give him credit for learning the full context and saying calls for her resignation are over the top.

  13. vnjagvet says:

    After 9/11, IIRC, neither Bush nor Cheney nor anyone else in the administration claimed that “the system worked”, even though the response of NYC’s finest to the unspeakable destruction and carnage at the WTC was exceptional.

    The response to 9/11 was to immediately attack the attackers wherever they were, and to work with Congress to initiate systems that would prevent such attacks in the future.

    In contrast, this administration’s public response to the 12/25 near miss has been anemic. Hopefully, strong efforts are being made behind the scenes on the diplomatic and intelligence fronts to tighten screening of flights to the US, and to assure information in the pipeline gets to the right people without bureaucratic red tape and other delays.

  14. sam says:

    this administration’s public response to the 12/25 near miss has been anemic

    More anemic than this?

    Eight 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.

  15. Zuzu says:

    Wayne wrote:

    Except all the questions were about the attack and what happen before not what the response was.

    The fact is her remarks about the response were taken out of context.

  16. Triumph says:

    I love all these people trying to defend Mama Napolitana.

    The facts remain: liberals are weak on defense, we were attacked by al-Quaeda on Christmas–the holiest day of the year for America, Mama Naoplitana and Papa Obama were in charge during this attack. Papa Obama did nothing but PLAY GOLF. Mama Napolitana said “everything works.”

    There is no way you can defend that. The liberals showed they true colours. They be weak on defense and put the entire country at risk on the holiest day of the year.

  17. sam says:

    Trim up your sails there TMan, you’re veering toward Zelsland.

  18. vnjagvet says:

    Sam:

    The shoe bomber incident was in December 2001, a little more than 90 days after 9/11 and almost two years before the DHS and TSA began operations. The entire federal government was feeling its way along and there was much public debate on appropriate actions to be taken to screen airline passengers, etc. Further, the problem was at the Paris end of the flight, and diplomatic activities had not yet resulted in international coordination of screening procedures.

    Further, I think it is more important to have a meaningful unified message from the federal government than a speedy one. I think the response to the attempting was wanting, especially in light of the dots that should have been connected by the vast resources now brought to bear to prevent future attacks on the homeland.

  19. anjin-san says:

    The shoe bomber incident was in December 2001, a little more than 90 days after 9/11 and almost two years before the DHS and TSA began operations.

    So it took Bush six days to comment publicly because the DHS & TSA did not yet exist?

    the homeland

    This expression still gives me the creeps.

    The response to 9/11 was to immediately attack the attackers wherever they were

    Utter crap. It took several weeks before we attacked Afghanistan, and I don’t recall any attack on Saudi Arabia, which is, after all, where most of the attackers and Bin Laden hail from.

    What response should Obama make? Declare war on Yemen? Or perhaps Nigeria. Well, that way we can kill some innocents who happen to be Muslims and then guys on the right can talk about what badasses “we” are…

  20. Have a nice G.A. says:

    where most of the attackers and Bin Laden hail from.

    Your sure their not form the religion of Allah?The global true believer part?

  21. yetanotherjohn says:

    Assume for a minute that the ‘system work’ is exactly what she meant to say and referred only to the response. The fact that she used this on multiple shows indicates this is not a slip of the tongue but a pre-planned statement she was trying to get out through the media.

    Do you not see a problem with that as a mind set? The speed with which you can send out memos after an attack to prevent a similar attack is certainly part of the system. It wouldn’t help if there were 50 more people already in the air, but if you assume a really incompetent enemy who would put their 50 people serially in the attack and not in parallel, then this has some value.

    What it doesn’t show is any thought towards preventing the guy from getting on the plane with the bomb in the first place. It shows a bureaucrats mindset. Stopping the threat would put her out of a job. Filling in all the forms neatly is the system working. Her response to the question on screening shows this. There is no suggestion that the screening was improper because the forms for screening are filled in correctly. The fact that the ‘proper’ screening would allow a bomb on isn’t the bureaucrats worry. The only worry is that the memo on how to screen was complied with.

    She needs to go because she sees her job as closing barn doors after the horses get out, not preventing the horses getting out in the first place. If we only seek to prevent the enemy from implementing the exact same attack twice, we lose because as simple a change as moving the bomb from the shoes to the crotch foils the system.

    And to look at it another way, do you really think the ‘system worked’? Can you not imagine any better potential than what happened?

  22. anjin-san says:

    She needs to go because she sees her job as closing barn doors after the horses get out It will hurt Obama, and that is the only thing we care about.

    Fixed that for you.

    Where was the out outcry from the right after 9.11 when Condoleezza Rice said “no one ever imagined that planes could be used as weapons”? Give me a break. Anyone who reads Tom Clancy books can imagine it, and that is half the people that work in national security.

  23. anjin-san says:

    From Politico

    Republicans have cast votes against the key TSA funding measure that the 2010 appropriations 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.

    Yep. Its all Obamas fault.

  24. AllenS says:

    Reading John Cole will waste your time and make you dumber.

  25. sam says:

    Heh. Well, let’s put all this back and forth into some perspective. Via Andrew Sullivan I was directed to this website, Plunderbund, for this evaluation of the guys recruited by Al Qaeda:

    Al Qaeda’s finest — upper class rich kids toasting their testicles

    One of my favorite Monty Python skits ever takes on a new meaning when Al Qaeda is resorting to deployment of whiny rich kids who can’t even blow up their own testicles properly.

    What I find most amusing about Al Qaeda’s finest is how familiar their journeys look. These were the guys in college who showed up on campus freshman year in the Jaguar mommy bought them for high school graduation, had their grandmas flown in on the Cessna for Parents Weekend, (because Granny flying commercial just isn’t done), refused to eat the cafeteria food, wouldn’t go to the football games because that many drunk people made them uncomfortable, kitted out their dorm rooms with obscenely expensive furniture, wintered in Palm Beach, summered in the Hamptons, took spring break on a private beach in the Caymans, and never EVER picked up the bar tab.

    Because most of those guys were precisely as useless to society as the upper class twits in this Monty Python skit, they largely went on to become drug addicted, wife beating, yacht sailing, globe trotting exhibits of human wreckage. Looks like a few of them ended up in Al Qaeda, too.

    The part about never picking up the bar tab says it all, imo.

    Head on over there to see the Monty Python Youtube, Upper Class Twit of the Year.

  26. Have a nice G.A. says:

    Your sure their not form the religion of Allah?The global true believer part?

    Your sure their not form from the religion of Allah?The global true believer part?

    What the heck Sam? How did you miss the most impotent news of the day?

  27. Drew says:

    “…I want to point out that once the terrorists crashed the planes the system worked like clockwork. Equipment and rescue workers were contacted and sent immediately, and we had plenty of body bags. Hospitals sprung into action and supplies of blood and pain medication were ample.

    I would leave you with that message. The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures, in light of this incident, but, again, everyone reacted as they should. The system, once the incident occurred, the system worked.”

    Janet Naplitano, sometime in the future

  28. anjin-san says:

    So Drew, where was your outrage when the GOP was voting against funding for explosives detection systems and other aviation security measures?

    Or is it that your real agenda is just to damage Obama, and national security is a distant second?

  29. Drew says:

    Childish, anjin-san –

    James has this whole thing pretty much right, IMHO.

    The criticisms of Janny Nap are valid. Defenders are taking a weird, literalist and spun statement as reality. Suppose a chicken producer – after 5 salmonella deaths – said “well, after the deaths the system worked flawlessly etc etc.” Crazy. Your support of this line of thinking is bizarre.

    But I also think James got it right on Obama. What the hell was he supposed to do and say in the first 48 hours?? I think he played it reasonably right. Time will tell.

    Unsolicited advice: In the future you might want to disassociate yourself with the wild eyed, crazy partisans who have fallen in line with Janny Nap just to continue slobbering over aqll things Obama. I’ve read this whole thread and their comments are embarassingly stupid. It makes you want to avert your eyes.

  30. anjin-san says:

    The criticisms of Janny Nap are valid. Defenders are taking a weird, literalist and spun statement as reality.

    Show me where I have defended Naplitano. At very best, her choice of words was terrible. What I am doing is pointing out that the more rabid responses to her interview are clearly about partisan politics, not national security.

    And if you want to talk about “childish” you might want to refrain from things like”

    Janny Nap

    And I would like to hear your opinion about lack of GOP support for explosive detection devices. Exactly how is that childish?

  31. Drew says:

    Please, anjin –

    You are flowndering like a fish flopping in a boat……

  32. anjin-san says:

    Weak Drew. You can’t show where I am “defending” Naplitano, because I’m not. You can’t defend the GOPs refusal to fund measures that would help prevent these kind of attacks because it is, well, indefensible.

    How am I associated with wild-eyed crazy partisans any more than you are? You have not refuted anything I have said or presented a reasonable counter argument. You sound kind of like a teenager saying “dude, that is so lame”, but not having any second act.

    Unsolicited advice, try and do better…

  33. sam says:

    @GA

    What the heck Sam? How did you miss the most impotent news of the day?

    This really isn’t the venue for you to be retailing your personal problems, you know.

  34. Have a nice G.A. says:

    This really isn’t the venue for you to be retailing your personal problems, you know.

    lolha ha….