The bellowing by Republicans over the Obama administration's supposedly lackadaisical response to the attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit seems as much about political posturing as legitimate national security concerns.
How else to explain the GOP's relatively quiet reaction eight years ago to President George W. Bush's detached response after a similarly-botched terrorist attack?
On December 22, 2001, Richard Reid -- known more infamously as the shoe bomber -- failed in his attempt to blow up a Miami-bound jet using explosives hidden in his shoe. Coming less than four months after September 11, there already were deep concerns about a potential attack during the upcoming holiday break. Nevertheless, President Bush did not directly address the foiled plot for six days, according to an extensive review of newspaper records from that time period. And when he did, it was only in passing.
The day of the attempted attack, for example, the Associated Press reported that "White House officials" were monitoring the situation throughout the afternoon and that "President Bush received two briefings" on the matter while at Camp David for the holidays. Spokesman Scott McClellan, meanwhile, told reporters that administration officials were consulting with acting Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift -- the plane Reid boarded made an emergency landing at Boston's Logan International Airport.
"The White House has been monitoring the situation since early on today," McClellan said, according to a Washington Post article published on December 23. The lead statement came from Swift, who lauded the "heroic acts" of "the flight attendants and passengers who helped subdue the suspect."
Little changed in the days ahead. The Washington Post, citing administration sources, also reported on Sunday December 23 that Bush would seek an increase in domestic security funds as the centerpiece of his 2003 budget request. On Monday December 24, CNN reported that Bush called members of the U.S. military stationed overseas to pass along holiday wishes. He was joined at Camp David that day by "the extended Bush clan... including the President's parents, the former President and the First Lady."
That same day, The New York Post quoted Thomas Kinton, interim executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, discussing how Reid was ultimately subdued. In addition, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), was quoted saying: "The message here... is that terrorists are going to hit us again." The final edition of USA Today that day reported that: "A White House spokesman said President Bush was monitoring the incident." As for an on-the-record comment, The Boston Globe noted that: "Bush has not issued any statements about the incident."
By Wednesday, December 26, Bush had left Camp David and was en route via Air Force One to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, according to ABC News. While there, another equally pressing national security concern entered his radar: Osama bin Laden released another videotape. On the scene in Crawford, then CNN correspondent Major Garrett was asked whether the administration had any reaction.
"No, Wolf," he said to host Wolf Blitzer. "The White House is really a bit hamstrung in this regard. First of all, it didn't expect the tape to be released. Second of all, many senior advisers are not here with the president at the Crawford ranch. Many of them are taking what the president considers to be a well-deserved vacation. And they're scattered around the country. They're trying to get in touch with each other."
By the end of the day, a response was issued -- but from a deputy press secretary and not the president himself. "The Bush administration says Osama bin Laden's latest statements are -- quote -- "terrorist propaganda,'" relayed Blitzer.
"That itself is a story, Wolf," Major Garrett remarked. "Because the White House really feels that now if it responded in any more formal way, any more lengthy way, it would be he elevating bin Laden in a way that's simply not in the United States's or its coalition partners' overall interest."
The real kicker came the next day -- Thursday December 27. CNN led off its report by noting that the president "decided to keep quiet" about "the latest bin Laden tape" in what was a "quiet day at the Western White House." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, however, held a press conference in which he announced -- to the amazement of some observers -- that he'd "stopped chasing" reports on the terrorist leader.
In that press conference, Rumsfeld was also asked about Richard Reid -- now five days after the incident. "That's a matter that's in the hands of the law enforcement people and not the Department of Defense," he said. "And I don't have anything I would want to add."
It would be another day before Bush himself publicly mentioned the shoe bomber. In a press conference on December 28, in Crawford, the president said that incident was proof that "the country has been on alert."
"A stewardess on an American Airlines flight - or a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight - was vigilant, saw something amiss and responded," he added. "It's an indication that the culture of America has shifted to one of alertness, and I'm grateful for the flight attendant's response, as I'm sure the passengers on that airplane."
And so there you have it. The Bush White House downplayed not just the Reid incident (handing over lead responsibilities to federal law enforcement officials) but also consciously deflected attention away from bin Laden out of concern about elevating his latest antics.
In contrast to that response, the current White House has been quite active. The attempted bombing of the plane over Detroit occurred on December 25. That night, Obama convened a secure conference call with his Homeland Security and counter-terrorism advisers. He did the same the next morning and the morning after that. On the 27th, the president dispatched his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, to the Sunday shows to take questions on the matter. And on December 28, he gave a public statement while still on site in Hawaii.
Obama may not have worn a tie while giving those remarks (which has annoyed more than a few conservatives). But he did host a public address specifically on the situation (which Bush did not do). And while Napolitano may have gaffed during the first round of interviews by proclaiming that the system worked, it was nothing worse than what then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said about Richard Reid back in 2001.
"Throughout the war on terrorism, our military and intelligence officials have made a concerted effort to share appropriate information with the public in order to enlist their assistance," Ashcroft said, in remarks highlighted by ABC News. "We've asked citizens to be vigilant, to be alert to any possible threat. The success of this strategy was made clear by yesterday's indictment of Richard Reid, who may very well have succeeded in destroying American Airlines Flight Number 63, as the indictment charges, had it not been for the courage and attentiveness of the citizen passengers and crew."