Up in the Air: Obama's Terrorism Failure

President Obama faces the most serious crisis of his presidency. With Al Qaeda claiming credit for seeking to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane near Detroit and promises of more to come, his administration's handling of the plot, at each and every step, has been redolent of the Bush administration's actions before and after September 11. To show that he's serious about protecting Americans, Obama needs to fire Janet Napolitano for claiming that the system worked and take a hard look at the record of CIA director Leon Panetta as well.

To claim that the system functioned well is redolent of the Bush administration's attempts to substitute public relations for serious intelligence work. So transparent was the assertion that the administration is already backtracking. In his press conference, however, Obama offered nothing more than platitudes about remaining vigilant against terrorism. Sorry, but vigilance isn't enough.

What's needed is intelligence officials who are capable of interpreting the information they receive. The warning delivered on November 19 to the American embassy by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father was clearly not taken seriously by officials in Nigeria. Where, for example, was the CIA station chief? Something is badly amiss with the intelligence process. Why wasn't Washington properly alerted about the warning? Why were the intelligence agencies asleep at the switch -- again?

No security system is going to be foolproof. But forewarned should be forearmed. The warning was there -- as it was with the 9/11 hijackers. Prior to 9/11, however, there was no sense of urgency about terrorism from abroad. Now there is -- or there's supposed to be. How could the CIA and the Homeland Security Department mess up so badly?

The sad truth is that Americans may well be little more protected after spending billions on security and creating an entire new federal agency in the form of the so-called Homeland Security Department than they were prior to it. But it is galling to see the Obama administration respond tardily and ineptly to the threats emanating from abroad and to try and brush off the public with blandly reassuring fictions about their security.

In coming weeks and months, Obama will confront further crises. His presidency will not rise or fall on health care, but on his ability to safeguard America. His lackadaisical response to this abortive terrorist act is cause for alarm. So far, Obama has left Americans up in the air.