03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Security Problems: The Media, Cheney and, Oh Yes, the Issue

President Barack Obama does have a big problem on security. Well, more accurately, he has big problems. But not all the problems that are trumpeted are real, for the trumpeting itself is a big part of the problem.

The Christmas Day attack over Detroit failed in a literal sense yet succeeded in reviving the issue of terrorism in American politics. Though not to the extent that many imagine, which I'll get to in a moment.

So what are Obama's problems on security?

In his final weekend video/radio address of 2008, President Barack Obama discussed the act of terrorism on the Christmas Day flight to Detroit, and his broader strategy to fight Al Qaeda.

** First, we have, let's face it, a toxic and dysfunctional media culture. The talk radio virus is everywhere. It's a war, it's a war, it's a war, goes the yip-yap, and why isn't that weak and soft Obama saying it is? Well, first off, it's a different kind of war, one that needs to rely more on intelligence and the targeted and discrete use of hard power, not massive, counter-productive invasions. Second, Obama has repeatedly said it's a war. There's no credible debate on that; it's fact. The hysterical and wildly inaccurate voice is afforded far too much attention and credibility in today's media culture.

Obama has increased anti-terrorism operations, with big strikes against Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen and Somalia as well as stepped-up attacks on Al Qaeda cadre in Pakistan. He's successfully pushed Pakistani leaders to push back hard against the Taliban insurgency which had made big strides there under the Bush/Cheney Administration. And, of course, he's insisted on a big escalation in Afghanistan.

A Jordanian doctor-turned-suicide bomber, in reality a triple agent who killed seven CIA agents at a base in Afghanistan (including, it's said, the agency's top Al Qaeda analyst who had flown in from Langley), is regarded by his family as a martyr in holy war against the United States.

But people are allowed by the press to lie, and Obama isn't out there spouting empty one-liners like the previous president, so all this martial and highly lethal activity that Obama has spun up is somehow rendered as insufficiently "tough." What a preposterous situation.

** Speaking of which, there is the continuing media relevance of Dick Cheney. Why is this man viewed as a serious figure on these issues? In 2001, he pushed for American strategy to focus on North Korean missiles -- which still don't work right -- far more than al Qaeda, which barely registered on his radar screen.

As soon as al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, he was pushing to invade Iraq. Which had nothing to do with the attacks. Cheney did succeed in forcing an invasion of Iraq, which created a strategic opening for Iran, which does sponsor terrorism. Wonderful. This brilliant strategy of Cheney's has bogged down our forces in Iraq for nearly seven years with the exit barely in sight.

President Barack Obama said last week that when it comes to terrorist threats against the nation, "The buck stops with me," and he's ordering changes in the handling of intelligence on potential threats.

And, for all his bleatings about the wonders of Guantanamo Bay and Obama's supposed weakness in wanting to close the notorious prison, it was on Cheney's watch that a Guantanamo prisoner was released who swiftly slipped the music therapy rehab he was enjoying in Saudi Arabia and went to Yemen, where he became a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and reportedly helped plan the attack in the skies over Detroit two-and-a-half weeks ago.

The evidence is clear that Dick Cheney, to put it politely, has no idea what he's talking about.

** Hitting them where they ain't. In football, that's good. Pass the ball to a receiver in open space, and make a big gain or a touchdown. This isn't football. We've gone from being pinned down in Iraq under and Cheney and George W. Bush to being pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan under Barack Obama. The difference is that we are getting less pinned down in Iraq, though the night is still young.

Afghan police are failing to tackle the flourishing drug trade and insurgent violence, despite billions being spent by international forces to bolster security. Foreign training programs are getting poor results because of corruption, illiteracy and a lack of infrastructure.

Al Qaeda isn't in Afghanistan. If it has a resurgence there, with our surveillance assets and forces in theater, we can wreck its ability to re-establish the bases they had there before 9/11.

The present escalation in Afghanistan contributes precisely nothing to the prevention of attacks like that on 12/25.

** Then there is the shifting loci of transnational jihadism. That's a fancier way of saying that al Qaeda, in its various forms -- core cadre associated with Osama bin Laden, regional franchises, and walk-in and street corner enthusiasts -- isn't in any one place. It looks for failed/failing states for bases of operation, but in smaller form it can exist anywhere, including here.

Al Qaeda doesn't seem to be in Iraq or Afghanistan -- merely the places where we have most of our ground combat forces -- but it is in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. Which hardly means we should invade Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia. That would almost certainly backfire.

Yemen says it has intensified its battle against Al Qaeda in its country and doesn't want any U.S. troops on the ground.

Yemen, a newer hotspot for al Qaeda, has links to the Fort Hood shooter and the would-be Christmas Day bomber. American counter-terror activities are up sharply there, and so was the threat of retaliation from al Qaeda before the Christmas Day attack.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that a meeting on Yemen planned for later this month in London will give the international community a chance to assess both the threat in Yemen and the world's response.

The FBI on Friday arrested two men linked to an alleged Al Qaeda associate accused of a plot to attack New York City with homemade bombs after one of the men caused a traffic accident while under surveillance.

** Then there is one of the most nettlesome issues, that of homegrown jihadism in the cradles of Western civilization. The jihadist movement has many facets. Whether the reported Fort Hood shooter, Army Major Nidal Hasan, is crazy or not, his actions and contacts, if accurately reported, make it clear that he considered himself to be a jihadist. There have been a number of other similar recent incidents.

Officials in Yemen, where he reportedly received training from al Qaeda, are saying that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalized in London, where he graduated from a prestigious college. With the so-called "DC Five," American college students who reportedly went to Pakistan to pursue jihad, this seems to be a alarming trend in the development of Islamic extremists. Pakistani officials reportedly seek life imprisonment of these American-born Islamic extremists, who were carrying maps of Pakistani nuclear facilities when arrested. Three are of Pakistani descent, with one of Egyptian descent and one of Yemeni descent.

And there is the amazing case of David Headley, a Chicago man who traveled extensively and appears to have become deeply involved in Islamic terrorist activities on a global basis.

He is charged with being one of the main people behind the Thanksgiving 2008 terrorist siege of the Indian commercial capital of Mumbai. With his American passport and American name, he was able to travel freely and without question.

As it happens, Headley changed his birth name from Daood Gilani and is in fact the half-brother of the PR director for Pakistan's prime minister.

** And there is the shaky utility of techno-fixes. Is it best to look for the bomb or the bomber? Isn't most of what we go through at airports a form of political theater, and in many respects, theater of the absurd?

Obama is dealing with the fall-out, on multiple fronts, of the Christmas Day attack by a Nigerian Islamic terrorist on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit, instituting new security procedures to replace those which failed. Which, incidentally, he inherited from the Bush/Cheney administration.

Now we have the call, and push for, full-body scanners, which will probably be less intrusive than the goofy system we have now.

Congress voted against these scanners last year, in a bill sponsored by a far right Republican from Utah with a rather prudish viewpoint. And backed by professional civil libertarians who opposed expansion of airport scrutiny.

This and other scanning technologies can help detect threats that magnetometers can't. You'll recall how horrified I was when the gatecrashers at Obama's first state dinner were admitted despite not being on the list, going only through a magnetometer. Which the Secret Service and White House at first claimed was real security.

President Barack Obama said that the failed Christmas Day airliner attack shows "a potentially disastrous" failure in which the U.S. intelligence community had enough information to connect the dots ahead of time but did not.

But technology is not fool-proof. And the advance of technology in bomb-making won't stop. And while there is a certain equality in misery of forcing everyone to schlep their way through screenings, there is no such thing as equality in likelihood of being a jihadist. The fact is that Aunt Minnie from Minneapolis is not a terrorist, and it is foolish to act as though she might be.

This is why some forms of passenger profiling are necessary, as Obama now realizes. Which Bush, oddly, did not.

The Obama administration has instituted a form of passenger profiling, focusing on passengers from or traveling through countries with significant terrorist activity. This "countries of interest" approach would have led to greater scrutiny of all the terrorist attackers, would-be and otherwise, of aircraft since before the 9/11 attacks.

That includes the so-called "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, a British citizen who traveled frequently for indoctrination in Pakistan before trying to blow up a transatlantic flight a few months after 9/11.

The trick, of course, will be using profile techniques without acting as though everyone who is profiled is a terrorist.

Incidentally, notwithstanding all the cable bloviating about upcoming terrorism trials, Reid was tried and convicted in civilian court and now resides in a civilian prison.

Now here's the really interesting thing. While Obama has substantive problems on security, his perceptual problems exist only in the echo chamber of the media culture and the insular world of politics.

A new CNN poll reveals that, in the wake of the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner, most Americans remain confident that the Obama Administration can protect the country from terrorism.

So much for all the chatter to the contrary.

It's probably best to largely ignore cable chat, talk radio, and blogospheric excretions on this to the degree possible.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Monday also indicates that the vast majority of Americans believe that full-body scanners should be used in airports across the country.

Congress voted against these scanners last year, in a bill sponsored by a far right Republican from Utah with a rather prudish viewpoint. And backed by professional civil libertarians who opposed expansion of airport scrutiny.

Nearly two-thirds of people questioned in the poll say they have a moderate or great deal of confidence in the administration to protect the public from future terrorist attacks, up 2 points from August. Thirty-five percent say they have not much or no confidence at all, down 1 point from August.

A number of Republicans have criticized the president over his handling of the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. But according to the survey, 57 percent approve of the way President Barack Obama's responded, with 39 percent disapproving of how he handled the situation.

"Only a third of Republicans have a positive view of Obama on this matter, but the key for the administration is the 55 percent of independents who approve of how the president responded to the incident on Christmas Day," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. ...

Six in 10 say the terrorists will always find a way to launch an attack, no matter what the government does, he adds -- identical to the number who felt that way during the Bush administration. ...

The poll indicates that nearly eight in 10 believe that full-body scanners should be used in U.S. airports, and only 15 percent say they would refuse to go through one of the new machines at an airport, if asked to do so.

The media/political echo chamber is where Obama is in trouble, not the country itself.